There is nothing more tragic than being a refugee in ones’ own homeland. Exile is no longer an imagined place or ambiguous choice. It is a reality forced on by the trauma of a natural or man-made crisis, sharpening the pain and loss of leaving home, of facing the unsaid horror of becoming a third-class citizen in one’s own country.
Pakistanâ€™s humanitarian crisis is a tragic byproduct of the state’s military response to regional taliban and global jihadists. Over three million have been forced to leave their homes in the Frontier province in order to escape the conflict. . According to the government’s latest estimates,Pakistanhas lost $35billion since year 2001 in terms of direct and indirect costs since the state signed up as an ally for the international effort against terrorism. Today, when non-state actors challenge the writ of the state and attempt to subvert law, the attempt to fight the Taliban has becomePakistan’s own single biggest battle . It frames all debates and defines all realities. As it stands, the annual cost of this enterprise is set to go up from $5bn to $8bn this year, with new bills threatening to tip the scales further. Though there is a broad national consesnus on the importance of fighting this borderless enemy, unlike other wars, the effort has neither been time-barred, nor a great national unifier, especially when the human and non-human costs of the attrition weigh down morale. Battlefield gains on one side throw up ashes at another. The Taliban retreat from the hills of the north, only to retaliate in the cities. Death has become a daily statistic: in 2005 we lost 254 lives to terrorism. In 2008 we lost a staggering 2,386.
The current IDPs crisis adds a tragic new dimension to the list of battlesPakistan, as a nation, has been confronted with since the state was enlisted as a partner in theUSjihad against theSoviet UnioninAfghanistan. As we grapple with challenges on security, political, economic and social fronts,Pakistanis now faced with the reality of large numbers of citizens living on subsistence scraps, paying the price for an existential threat that must be confronted for the promise of a stable and viable future.
Yet, despite the outpouring of public grief at the human deprivation distilled on television without interruption, and national discourse forcing many graphic realities out in the open, a few issues remain un-addressed, while others bear reiteration. While Pakistani families have opened up their homes in the NWFP, given that 80 per cent of refugees are guests in people’s homes, the collective expression of support, both in terms of services and resources that we witnessed in the 2005 earthquake effort is missing. Instead of apportioning blame on the media, which is the inevitable whipping-boy, or surrendering to public apathy about assistance, the reasons for that need to be examined without delay. This is not to minimize or discount the heroic effort put in by NGOs or individuals even today all over the country, but simply to identify a macro trend. The exceptional work being done by Sungi, Sarhad Rural Support Programme, SPO, SPARC, Sarhad PMA and many individuals and expatriates almost round the clock is testimony to the support offered by citizens in every crisis. However, the element of national collective mobilisation as witnessed in the earthquake relief response is sorely missing from the ongoing efforts.
One of the problems stemming out of this tragedy is a crisis of management and credibility, not just that of governance. The bulk of the public appears to be either removed from the reality of the crisis, or in a mild state of shock, slowing effective reaction. Many insist that they want to help, as there is an increased stake by citizens in the state, but see no consistent or credible point of entry for themselves. Corporations that have experience with previous disaster assistance are sending out their own needs-assessment teams, or simply sending in a minimum committed contribution mostly in terms of goods, not services. Partially because each days adds a new burden to the chellenge , it is clear that the management of the IDPS crisis suffers from crucial coordination and resource deficits. This too cannot be just thrown away as a classic government incompetence issue. There can be no dispute that this exodus was expected. Yet just one look at the sheer scale and magnitude of the exodus of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) explains why even the most rigorous action based on existing models of planning would still have fallen to the wayside. So while the government is indeed slow and unwieldy, it is absolutely clear that, like the earthquake in 2005, which displaced smaller numbers, given existing templates for crisis-management, the government alone cannot handle the tidal wave of humanity that outstrips the largest migration of refugees since partition alone. The government should certainly resort to better multiple-track planning, as the primary engine and capacity for coordination can only be resourced by official agency, but it should use the space and opportunity arising from this challenge to build trust with citizens and launch a public-private participation drive.
The second broad theme that emerges in the dynamics of this refugee crisis is related to its political dimension. While a lot of the families streaming in on foot or borrowed transport from Buner, Swat and Dir are in a state of shock at the trial they are going through, nobody should expect them to give ringing condemnations of the Taliban that held them in thrall. Many speak privately of the fear they lived in, but equally many speak of the possibility of social justice under the Taliban. This is completely understandable for any population left in a social and governance vacuum. However, in no sense does it mean that the Robin-Hoodism of an early Taliban encounter with locals is either acceptable in the long-term, or sustainable even for the conservative inhabitants of this area simply because they did not vote for anything close to the Taliban. In fact, the people of these areas did not even vote for the mainstream religious parties who have a problem with the military operation per se, not just its dynamics or tactics. The votes from these areas came for the ANP and the PPP, both progressive if not secular parties. Women from the most oppressive domestic and social environments in areas likeLower Dircan only be expected to be indifferent to the prospects of a Taliban regime where female mobility is restricted in public spaces. However, families that traded on tourism see their livelihoods destroyed and their social fabric damaged. They may not endorse the rain of shrapnel on their rooftops, as military force is always heavy, often indiscriminate, but this should not drain public resolve to stand up to the advance of militants who criminalize society, mis-use religion and challenge the laws of the state.
A recent visit to the IDP camps in Mardan was as harrowing as educational. Even in brief conversations with the women, men, children and elders of the displaced population, nobody suggested that they wanted to stay on or take the side of the Taliban as the military moved in to encircle the hide-outs. Many women spoke in hushed tones about the prostitution that had been introduced in Swat society by the Taliban, while just as many didn’t seem to care if anyone was flogged or trafficked. The scorching heat of their tents, coupled with irregular supply of electricity, limited availability of clean drinking water, fans, beds, daily use items, unhygienic latrines, and an uneasy food distribution system could be enough incentive for them to welcome any militants who would restore them to the familiar domestic sanctuary of their homes.
The point here is as political as it is social. The country has made a collective choice that it rejects non-state actors that use the symbols and language of religious extremism to advance a non-mainstream agenda through the use of force. If we remain unclear about our resolve, or allow it to be confused with disagreements on military tactics, or are slow to mitigate the misery of the new IDPs, then we will lose the larger battle against extremism. This is certainly not the problem of the NWFP or even the federal government alone. Nor is it a partisan political issue. Infusing an ethnic or political narrative to the ongoing developments will only aggravate existing social fault lines. Instead of protesting the ingress of refugees into all provinces we should all be worrying about how to secure their comfort while they seek shelter. A temptation by host communities to send refugees back to their homes during pauses in the military operation must be resisted. The resettlement and rehabilition phase is a major challenge, and must be recognised as such before any IDPs are allowed to straggle back to an unsecured area only because they are unable to obtain food or shelter at this point.
The stress on managing on empty is showing at all levels. International assistance for the basic relief effort on the ground is still hamstrung by resource deficits. The UNHCR has pointed to an astounding 80% gap in aid availability, while the WFP reported a funding gap of 57%. Major aid agencies including Oxfam have warned of a â€œhumanitarian meltdownâ€™ if a resource shortfall amounting to $42m for emergency supplies for the displaced remains unmet. As the theatre of operation expands to the South Waziristan Agency, and thousands of Waziristan and Frontier Region refugees from Bannu and adjoining areas join their fellow displaced in the NWFP, the crisis in the backdrop of the July monsoon will test the combined abilities of government as well as the most experienced relief experts on the frontlines in Pakistan today . In fact, according to the latest figures, at the start of the first week of July 2009, there was a population of 235, 241 settled in 23 camps across the NWFP by the government. The remaining 1.5 million registered displaced citizens continue to bank on the hospitality of relatives and friends in the NWFP. Gaps between international pledges and actual resource transfers, for an estimated number of 4 million displaced population has added an extra twist of poignancy to the tragedy in our midst.
The fight for re-installing the flag ofPakistanin lost territories will not just be fought in military gains against the jihadist outsiders, or in limiting collateral damage. It will be fought in the heat and dust of the refugee camps. Success will only be construed as real if we are able to give them their dignity and their lives back.
Intro: The writer is a former federal information minister and Member National Assembly from Pakistan Peoples Party Sent via BlackBerry from Mobilink.