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ASIA-PACIFIC feature story for Pakistan

© UNICEF Pakistan/2009/Ramoneda

A displaced family prepares to return to their home in conflict-affected North-West Frontier Province. UNICEF and its partners are working to restore basic services for over 2 million people who fled the region during the fighting.

CHILDREN WHO STAYED BEHIND IN CONFLICT HIT AREAS ARE IN URGENT NEED OF SUPPORT

MINGORA, SWAT DISTRICT, Pakistan, August 2009 – At the newly re-opened Mingora Central Hospital, Maryam huddles close to her frail and elderly grandmother, Musakhel.  Recently, Maryam had stayed with her grandparents in their village home through intense fighting between the government and militants over two months.

Maryam, who is 12 but looks much younger, recalls her ordeal: “My grandmother would not let me go out because she was scared that the dogs would eat me. There was no one in our village except my grandparents and my father,” she says, her eyes filled with fear as she remembers.

“There was such intense shelling over our village that I was sure that we would be killed,” adds Maryam’s grandmother with relief clearly written on wrinkled face. “I still cannot believe that we have survived all this.”

With Swat District emptied of most of its population, their village had become infested with feral dogs prowling the streets until army personnel put them to sleep.

Maryam’s mother, Ghafoorzada, and her seven siblings only recently returned to Mingora.  They had fled in late May, when the government ordered the local population to leave their homes within a matter of hours. “It was an extremely difficult decision to leave Maryam behind but we had no choice," she says. "Someone had to help my husband look after his parents because they were too frail and ill to undertake the difficult journey out of Swat.”

Throughout the conflict children and women struggled to survive
Survival was extremely difficult for the few who stayed behind. Most had no electricity or water, and they had to live under a strict, continual curfew for two long months. There was little to eat, and families relied on whatever they had stockpiled before the conflict intensified, supplemented with home-grown vegetables like spinach and potatoes.

“I would climb over our neighbour’s walls to get eggs laid by their chickens,” says Maryam, who quickly add that the neighbours gave her permission to do so before they left. “My father would collect dry leaves and sticks to build a fire for cooking and I had to walk far to get water from the spring,” she continues.

Tears swell in her mother’s eyes as she listens to Maryam recount the difficulties. “My daughter has lost so much weight. When I returned I could not recognise her,” she says. Ghafoorzada also recalls her mother-in-law’s account about the fear they endured, lying awake night after night, too scared to sleep because of the roar of the shelling.

The day Ghafoorzada reunited with her daughter was not an easy one. "When Maryam saw me, at first she hugged me but then started hitting me screaming: 'Why did you leave us?' “

Those who remained behind in the conflict areas suffered from physical and psychosocial distress, especially children and women.  Health services were non-existent and over 300 schools were damaged or destroyed in areas of conflict, including a third of all girls' primary schools destroyed in the Swat Valley.

Life returns to normal, but sustained peace and resources are needed so families can rebuild their lives
Families started returning to their homes in conflict-affected Swat and Buner Districts from 13 July, when the government announced returns could begin to areas deemed safe. To date, 1.7 million people have returned out of the estimated 2.5 million who initially fled.

Places that were virtual ghost towns less than a month ago are slowly coming back to life as shops re-open, and people are visible again on the streets and working in the fields and orchards. Local authorities have returned and UNICEF is helping to restore basic services and support high-impact health initiatives such as vaccination. Already, the Mingora Central Hospital is receiving up to 1,600 outpatients a day.

Maryam is now going to school after a break of six months.  She is thrilled to be back. “I was so happy to see my teacher and some of my friends!" she says. "Now I can play with my friends again and we can study together.” Nearly all public schools in lower Swat re-opened on 1 August, with many holding classes outdoors or in tents provided by UNICEF and the Pakistan government.

UNICEF continues to work with the provincial and local governments to get more children, especially girls, back into school quickly and to prevent drop-outs. A joint ‘Welcome to School’ initiative aims to reach 532,000 children with education supplies as well as a series of actions to give returnee children an opportunity to get an education, including enrolment of those who have never been to school before. Temporary learning spaces such as tents and pre-engineered classrooms are being provided, and will become even more important as the extreme cold of winter descends upon the affected areas.

To UNICEF's global experience is added the government's access to insecure areas and knowledge of conditions on the ground. With the Department of Education, UNICEF is developing a teacher training programme to help ensure that children like Maryam have the psychosocial support and guidance at school that they need to catch up after months of disruption. Special teacher training will be provided on issues like landmine risk awareness, conflict resolution and peace education.

Within the context of return, UNICEF works with partners to support the restoration of basic health and education services – schools, health centres, damaged and destroyed water and sanitation systems and protection for children. As peace slowly returns to Swat District, there is urgent demand for basic services and to support critically under-funded early recovery work. Much remains to be done to ensure that children like Maryam who stayed behind – as well as those who are returning to the area and those who remain displaced – have the services they need to recover from the effects of conflict.