Reaching out to the most vulnerable in camps for displaced people in Pakistan
By Antonia Paradela
Peshawar, October 2008: Batcha Bibi, a young woman in her early twenties, pulls her colourful headscarf to cover her hair as she recounts the events that have changed her life in recent months. Her three sons, aged from six to two, huddle against her sitting on a tarpaulin sheet. They are all inside a tent to escape from the sun and dust in Katcha Garhi camp in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Once the home of Afghan refugees, the camp now accommodates about 7,000 Pakistani people displaced by fighting in Bajaur, a tribal agency on the border with Afghanistan's Kunar Province.
A year ago, Batcha Bibi reminisces, she was married woman, living in her own home with her husband and three children. He had a good job working in the local security forces commanded by the political agents, the government representatives in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). She is now a widow. The Taleban killed her husband. She has just heard that their house has been destroyed.
Armed conflict in Bajaur involving government forces and militant groups affiliated to the Pakistani Taleban has caused the displacement of more than 200,000 civilians between August and October, according to government estimates.
Batcha Bibi lowers her green eyes and her voice almost drops to a whisper as she tells her story. “We fled our village in early August. We walked for four hours until we managed to get transport to reach relatives in Mardan. We stayed with them for a few days but had to move out because they were poor and couldn’t help us. We shifted to a camp and we were finally relocated to this place five days ago.”
Her children suffered during this ordeal. They got strains and bruises while escaping and later skin rashes and diarrhoea. This morning they have been vaccinated against polio, one of the interventions that UNICEF is supporting for families living in the camps. While her children had been regularly vaccinated, Batcha Bibi says, “for one year we had no polio campaigns because the Taliban would not let the government teams come to our homes.”
UNICEF is working to improve living conditions for the displaced families in the camps by providing safe drinking water and building latrines, setting up primary schools and child friendly spaces, as well as nutrition interventions for malnourished children and pregnant and lactating mothers.
Child protection monitors walk from tent to tent, identifying vulnerable families, including orphans and female-headed households, and make sure they are getting access to relief supplies and services.
Thousands of families have also been displaced in other areas such as Swat District in NWFP due to fighting in recent months. The numbers have fluctuated as some families have been able to return to their villages while others are forced to leave. In many cases, the men go back to look after the fields and cattle and protect their homes from looters while women and children stay behind in the camps. Recent surveys in three camps, including Katcha Garhi, indicate that 66 per cent of those displaced are children.
“If there were peace, we would not stay here for a single day," says Batcha Bibi. “But we don’t know what the future holds for us.”
To continue supporting the displaced families till March 2009, UNICEF needs US$ 6.45 million.
“It seems unlikely that the situation will improve in the coming months and we at UNICEF must be ready to assist displaced families and those who may join them in the future," says UNICEF Pakistan representative, Martin Mogwanja. "This is a very challenging environment as the security situation makes it difficult to access some displaced families. Nevertheless, it is UNICEF's mandate to provide these children with the safe environment and essential services they need, and that is what we hope to achieve."