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‘We were scared’: As supplies arrive, children try to cope with conflict in Pakistan

© UNICEF/Pak2009/Paradela
Girls attend class – and regain a sense of normalcy – in a tent school using UNICEF supplies at Yar Hussain camp for people displaced by the conflict between government forces and militants in north-west Pakistan.

By Antonia Paradela

NORTH-WEST FRONTIER PROVINCE, Pakistan, 29 May 2009 – The girls in the tent hosting first-grade students at the Yar Hussain displacement camp were reciting the day’s lessons. Amidst the group of six- and seven-year-olds sat Habiba Rojan, who looks much older than the others but does not know her age because she was not registered at birth. She thinks she is 12.

Habiba and her family were trapped in their home for two weeks, under mortar shelling and aerial bombardments, in the conflict between government forces and militants in north-west Pakistan.

“We were very scared every time we heard the planes flying over our house. My sisters and brother would cry,” she said.

Habiba’s family is amongst the millions of people on the move in this increasingly violent conflict. They represent the human face of the largest – and swiftest – displacement crisis in the country’s history.

Growing humanitarian needs

More than 2 million people have been forced to leave their homes as a result of the conflict, adding to the half-million still homeless in the wake of the earthquake that devastated this region in 2008. More than half of those displaced are children. Their needs are acute and growing by the day.

Habiba is one of more 320 girls and boys enrolled in the UNICEF-supported primary school at Yar Hussain. The district government has assigned local teachers to the school, and UNICEF has provided school bags, stationery and transport for teachers.

But there are not enough temporary schools to accommodate all the children in the camps. Thousands remain un-enrolled, and many more living outside camps do not attend school.

The numbers are expected to dramatically increase as more displaced families arrive. With the humanitarian crisis intensifying, UNICEF has issued an appeal for $41 million to meet the immediate needs of families whose living conditions are worsening by the day.

© UNICEF/Pak2009/Paradela
With UNICEF’s support, girls like Habiba have access to schooling in the camps for those displaced by conflict in Pakistan.

Emergency supplies

UNICEF’s contingency supplies in Pakistan are almost exhausted; it has begun sending additional aid and is preparing 35 tonnes of equipment to be shipped from its central supply hub in Copenhagen.

“The needs still need to be identified, but we have an idea already of the number of [emergency] kits that we will have to prepare – so we are proactive in identifying items that will be shipped,” said UNICEF Supply Division Emergency Coordinator Jean-Cédric Meeùs. "We have to bring essential supplies in the minimum time possible."

Among other assistance to the displaced in north-west Pakistan, UNICEF is:
- Providing safe water and sanitation facilities to prevent the spread of disease
- Supporting an immunization campaign
- Setting up ‘child-friendly spaces’ to ease the stress of conflict-affected children
- Identifying and assisting orphans, unaccompanied children and female-headed families.
- Children witness violence

"Many of the children arriving at these camps have seen violence no child should be exposed to," said UNICEF Representative in Pakistan Martin Mogwanja. "All of them have been uprooted from their normal lives and familiar surroundings.

“To help them cope with this disruption,” he added, “UNICEF hopes to bring stability and normalcy by quickly restoring the ordinary routines of school."

For her part, Habiba enjoys attending school again but still longs to go home. “I miss my chickens,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “I don’t know if they are dead or alive.”

Chris Niles contributed to this story from New York.



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