Reaching the Most Vulnerable Women and Children Fleeing the Fighting in Swat
By Alistair Gretarsson and Shandana Aurangzeb Durrani
Hanifa’s eyes fill with tears as she talks about her children, seventeen year old Gul Shah and fifteen year old Zeenat, who she hasn’t seen since they went to visit their married sister and her family in another village. Three weeks ago, Hanifa and her four children fled their home in Mingora in the Swat valley in north-western Pakistan where fighting between government security forces and Taleban militants has intensified heavily over the past month.
“I am very worried about my children and desperately want to go back to Swat and find them but the younger children do not let me go,” says Hanifa. “They are afraid that if I go I will be killed like their father.”
Hanifa and children fled their home after her husband, Bahadur Khan, was killed in the crossfire between government security forces and Taleban militants. The grief is written all over Hanifa’s face. “We didn’t even have time to give my husband a proper burial and we had to leave his body with the men in our neighbourhood because it was too dangerous for women and children to stay”.
Walking out of the war zone
Hanifa and her four young children - Jan Shah (14), Burkh (13), Brekhna (10) and Palwahsa (5) – literally walked out of the war zone. For three days they walked, over extremely difficult mountain terrain. Young Palwasha shyly shows the blisters on her feet. “I was exhausted and wanted to sit down but my mother kept on walking and forced us to walk”. Hanifa adds, “It was too dangerous to stop. There was shelling and bullets were flying over our heads and I desperately wanted to get my children to a safer place”.
Despite the deep sorrow of losing her husband and the separation from her three eldest children, Hanifa is grateful for the shelter and basic provisions they have received in Jalozai camp. The largest camp in the area, Jalozai accommodates almost 90,000 people. Of these, almost 50,000 have arrived within the last three weeks. Of the currently estimated of 1.9 million people who have been recently displaced by the fighting, only a small minority live in the camps while the rest are staying with friends, family or have found other forms of shelter. The majority of these people are women and children as many of the men have stayed in their homes to protect their property.
To accommodate the unrelenting stream of refugees, Jalozai camp has been repeatedly expanded and a number of new camps have been established. With insufficient resources and very little time, the government and humanitarian agencies are working hard to respond what is now the largest and fastest displacement of people the world has seen for last 15 years.
Reaching the most vulnerable
As Hanifa tells her story, Gullmina, a female Child Protection Monitor, arrives and enquires about the family’s health and whether they are facing any problems in accessing the basic services being provided in the camp. Gullmina works for the Pakistan Village Development Programme, a local NGO that, with UNICEF’s support, is working to ensure that female-headed families like Hanifa’s are identified, registered and provided with basic services that they so desperately need.
“Our organisation is also trying to locate her three older children and we are hopeful that we will find them soon,” Gullmina tells us.
Partnerships for children
With UNICEF’s support the organisation has established six child-friendly spaces in the camps. These spaces provide recreational facilities and psychosocial support for these displaced children, many of whom are heavily traumatized. Trained aid workers also provide counseling, information and support. Registration drives by Child Protection Monitors are taking place to identify families and children that are that are in particular need of support. These include female-headed families like Hanifa’s as well as children who have been orphaned or separated from their families.
UNICEF responded quickly to the government’s appeal for support during the current crisis and is providing basic services in health and nutrition, water and sanitation as well as in education and child protection. For example, UNICEF supports teams which are vaccinating children against polio and measles and works with partners to establish primary schools and to provide school supplies in the new IDP camps and in host communities.