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In north-west Pakistan, host families welcome the displaced but struggle to cope

© UNICEF/PAKA2009-5143/Ramoneda
Displaced children sit in the annex of a rural sugar cane mill. They were among a group of 25 children and women who fled the fighting in north-west Pakistan two weeks earlier and found refuge in a host community.

By Katey Grusovin

TAKHTBAI, Pakistan, 8 July 2009 – “Aeroplanes would come and drop bombs,” recalls Ajmal, 8. “There were mortar shells hitting our house. We children would cry. On the way it was very difficult and we could not walk – especially the little children, and we had to carry them on our backs.”

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Ajmal’s family was forced to flee from their village, Choprial, when fighting between government forces and militants engulfed the upper reaches of Pakistan’s Swat Valley in mid-June.

The young boy travelled with 24 women and children from his extended family, including a severely disabled uncle and a little girl who had to be carried. The two-day journey took them across mountains, down goat tracks and on the long road to Takhtbai in nearby Mardan District.

This is the first stop out of the conflict zone for thousands uprooted by the fighting in north-west Pakistan.

A frightening experience

The small group made it through, even as several of the village’s adult men remained behind to protect their small farm holdings. The only other man with the group besides Ajmal’s disabled uncle was separated from them along the way.

In this traditional society, men are responsible for all public dealings, so to travel unescorted through a conflict zone was a frightening, unfamiliar experience for the family.

© UNICEF/PAKA2009-5137/Ramoneda
A child looks out from a sugar cane mill where displaced children and women have found shelter from the conflict in north-west Pakistan.

Two other male family members who were working in Saudi Arabia have only just joined their families in the dark mud annex of a ramshackle old mill on a sugar cane plantation owned by Mr. Lajwar, a local farmer.

"These people arrived in a terrible state with absolutely nothing. I emptied my sugar mill for them as there were no rooms left in my house," says the owner.

’We are poor people’

Like many others in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, Mr. Lajwar has welcomed several families from Swat into his home. The extra burden is a struggle, but it is customary here to welcome guests, even strangers, especially in times of great need.

"We are poor people and do not have enough resources," he says. "We are sharing whatever food and clothes we have with them. These people urgently need assistance like health facilities, education, food, clothes."

More than 2 million people have been displaced in by the conflict in the region, three-quarters of them in a sudden influx following the latest round of fighting that began in late April in Swat and Buner districts. The sheer speed and magnitude of displacement stretched the capacity of the government, relief agencies and local communities.

Displaced live ‘invisibly’

Host communities have borne most of the burden. Only around 10 per cent of the displaced live in camps where they can be easily reached with humanitarian relief. Some 150,000 live in 4,000 school buildings converted into shelters by the government, and the rest are living 'invisibly' within communities.

Like Ajmal and his family, many of the displaced are struggling to get by in cramped, often unsanitary conditions with poor amenities, dependant on the hospitality of their hosts for food, clothing and other basic needs.

"Though fighting is subsiding, people are still streaming down to the plains in search of sanctuary,” says UNICEF's Programme Communication Officer Shandana Aurangzeb. “The vast majority are hidden away in people's houses, making it exceptionally difficult for the humanitarian community to reach them with food, clean water, basic hygiene items and medical services.

"The looming arrival of the annual monsoon promises even greater hardship and the prospect of even more disease if these people are not reached,” she adds. “Host communities are at equal risk.”




25 June 2009:
UNICEF correspondent Chris Niles reports on how families displaced by fighting in north-west Pakistan are finding shelter.
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