Helping children displaced by fighting in Pakistan rebuild their lives
By Antonia Paradela
Katcha Garhi camp, Peshawar. October 2008. The face of 16 year old Khair Ullah Khulozai grows sombre when he describes the circumstances that forced him to become the head of his family, as he sits on the floor of his tent surrounded by his younger sisters and brothers in a dusty camp for displaced people in Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) in Pakistan.
'We walked for seven hours with our mother and other people from our village until we managed to hire a pick up and come to Peshawar', said Khair.
The five children, three boys and two girls, had to flee their home with their mother in mid September, during the holy month of Ramadan. "Planes were bombarding our village; we thought the walls of our house were going to collapse. We ran away in the middle of the night. My father accompanied us across a mountain and then he headed back to look after our cattle and home for fear of looting. We walked for seven hours with our mother and other people from our village until we managed to hire a pick up and come to Peshawar".
This lanky boy comes from Bajaur, one of Pakistan's seven tribal areas, on the border with Afghanistan's Kunar province. Armed conflict there involving government forces and militant groups including the Pakistani Taliban forced the displacement of more than 200,000 civilians, according to official sources, between August and October 2008. Figures have been fluctuating as some families have been able to return to their villages while others have been forced to leave. Thousands of families also been displaced in other tribal areas and in the district of Swat in NWFP due to fighting in recent months. In October 2008, an estimated 168,000 people from Bajaur were living in camps or with their extended families in Pakistan. Surveys in three camps, including Katcha Garhi, indicated that 66 per cent of those displaced were children.
Life has been difficult for Khair Ullah and his younger siblings since hostilities started in their village in June. For two months the children endured aerial bombardments during the day and exchange of fire at night as villagers tried to repel the Taliban presence. For Khair Ullah's youngest sister, five year old Ajmina, the constant pounding of bombs was terrifying. "I would cry and run to hide behind the maize bags", she says.
Before the fighting started, things were much easier, remembers Khair Ullah: "We had our own house, land where we cultivated wheat and maize, cows and goats. My father also used to work as a construction worker on daily wages. We had a good life". The boy left school after the fourth grade to help his family work in the land. His second brother was attending the local government school until the Taliban closed it. His sisters never had the chance to go to school as there was no girls' school in their village.
Now he is in charge of his siblings in an unfamiliar city. His mother went back to their village to help the father look after the family property the previous day, a day after they were moved to Katcha Garhi from another crowded camp. Sikander Shah, a field monitor working for UNICEF's child protection implementing partner STEP in the camp, identified them and checks in with them daily. "We are making sure that the children receive assistance as well as emergency supplies and that they are protected from abuse or exploitation", he says. He knows that relatives of the children living in nearby tents are also keeping an eye on them until their mother returns in the coming days.
While working to meet the urgent needs of children and families displaced by conflict, UNICEF has been linking up vulnerable groups such as separated, unaccompanied and orphaned children as well as households headed by women with relief supplies and services. The organisation has also provided clean drinking water and provided latrines in the camps. It has taken part in immunisation campaigns against measles and polio to prevent the outbreak of preventable diseases, and it has provided nutrition services to malnourished children and pregnant and lactating women.
UNICEF has also set up child friendly spaces and supplied educational materials and rebuilt schools for displaced children.
"Assisting the displaced families has been particularly challenging, as the situation evolves rapidly and it is likely to remain unpredictable in the coming months", says the UNICEF Pakistan deputy representative, Luc Chauvin. "The influx of people has been constant and while some families have been able to go back to their villages, new families have been coming to the camps almost every day", he adds.
Khair Ullah says he is anxiously waiting for an end of hostilities in his village. "We want to go back. We are very sad. We are proud and independent people. Now we have to ask for everything". One day, however, he hopes things will change and he can return home in peace. "I would like to open a shop in my village," he says. "I want to live there for the rest of my life".