Today I have received an email message from Imtiaz Ali, Jennings Randolph Fellow United States Institute of Peace giving me detail about his Testimony before Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs. Imtiaz, who worked as journalist in Peshawar has given very little space to the crisis in tribal areas situated on Pak-Afghan border. I just want to tell the US administration that millions of people of tribal areas have been displaced and thousands have been killed or maimed. Half of Bajaur Agency has been bulldozed, but Imtiaz said nothing about that crisis. The following is the message of Imtiaz sent to me through email.
This is my Testimony on July 29 before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs about "Responding to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Crisis in Pakistan."
Thank you, Senator Casey and distinguished members of the subcommittee for providing me with the opportunity to testify before you on the internally displaced persons (IDP) crisis in the Swat Valley and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan. This is a phenomenon that poses a serious threat to Pakistan and ultimately to American security interests, but if handled correctly, can be an opportunity to promote them.
I am currently a Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace. I am a journalist by training and have spent a great deal of time reporting on Pakistan's tribal belt and North West Frontier Province along the Afghan border. The views I express today are my own and not those of the U.S. Institute of Peace, which does not advocate specific policy positions.
As you know, the crisis in Pakistan is by most metrics the biggest internal displacement in recent history. According to Pakistani officials and several U.N. agencies, the number of people forced to flee since fighting began this spring between Taliban militants and the Pakistani Army is more than two million. Most of these refugees fled to the neighboring districts of Mardan and Swabi, the closest and most accessible regions still unaffected by the fighting.
A lesser-known but equally critical fact is that less than 20 percent of the IDPs took shelter in the refugee camps set up by the government and aid organizations. Instead, the majority of the IDPs have sought refuge in the homes of local Pashtun "host" families. In many of the Pashtun villages in Mardan and Swabi, elders have assembled meetings and pooled resources to provide shelter for the IDPs from Swat, despite limited resources. Tellingly, these "host families" tend not to refer to the new guests as IDPs or refugees, but as community members entitled to the benefits of the centuries-long tradition of Pashtun hospitality.
The Pakistani government did a good job responding to this crisis, especially considering its limited resources -- which is why it was compelled to solicit international aid. Though, many Pakistanis have mixed feelings about the fair distribution of aid and some other aid related concerns. However, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of the people supported military operations in the Swat Valley.
Last month I went to Pakistan with the special envoy, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, as part of the presidential mission to look into the IDP crisis. I went with Ambassador Holbrooke to the IDP camps in Mardan and talked to a number of people residing there. After the official trip, I stayed on for few days to visit my hometown in District Mardan, where I saw first-hand the hospitality my own village people extended to IDPs from Swat. Lower and middle class families in Mardan and Swabi districts shared food, bedrooms and washrooms. When asked about the IDPs, even the poorest Pashtun in Mardan and Swabi said, "They are our guests. Don't call them IDPs. Don't call them refugees. It is part of our Pashtun tradition and culture to help them out."
And yet it was evident that hosting so many people has put an immense strain these predominantly poor communities. Meanwhile, most of the well-intentioned national and international aid is being directed towards camps serving only a small portion of the community in need, with too few resources reaching the communities absorbing the majority of the IDPs. Many fallacious reports underrepresented the number of IDPs living with the local host families, which has led to a lack of focus on communities as de-facto refugee camps.
One attempted means of reaching out to the overwhelming majority of the IDPs in need of aid was to employ the network of District Government system led by an elected district Nazim (mayor). But, it was not properly used because of an ongoing power struggle between the District Nazimsand the bureaucracy.
Pakistani higher ups and international dignitaries paid visits to some of the camps which, in my opinion, were what I would call "VIP Camps" because they were set up as show-cases with all the necessary facilities and more than enough food, deliberately hiding the real situation on the ground.
Few of the influential people who have visited Pakistan have gone to see host families in order to thank them for their generosity in giving shelter to the IDPs in their moments of need. That said, this was a unique crisis in many ways: the sheer number of the displaced people, the speed of the mass exodus, and then the overwhelming response from the local people and the rest of Pakistan to support the displaced people.
The problems of the displaced people are both short-term and long-term. In the short-term, the problem was to provide immediate relief, especially shelter, food, drinking water, medicine, etc. That part will soon come to an end with the repatriation of the Swat IDPs. However, the long-term problem is a daunting task: the IDPs need rehabilitation in their hometowns and substantial help is needed to rebuild and reconstruct the damaged infrastructure.
IDPs started returning to their hometowns on July 13 and, according to official figures, over 600,000 individuals have so far been returned to Mingora, the capital of Swat, and to the adjacent areas in Swat and neighboring parts of Buner. However, the problem is still far from over.
The Challenges Ahead