Pakistan: Women's voices from inside IDP camps

Displaced families are pouring into Mardan, Swabi, Peshawar & other areas of Pakhtunkhawa. Independent media and state confirm over 1.5 million people displaced from Swat as a result of the 3rd military operation against the Taliban in less than 2 years.
However, the exact number is believed to be 2 million, as hundreds of families are still waiting to be registered. Bushra Khaliq and Azra Shad recently visited three of the camps, set up in Mardan for the displaced population from Swat. These include the camps of Shaikh Yasin, Shaikh Shahzad and Sarhadi Lutheran Church camp on the outskirts of Mardan city.
There are 1,354 families with 12,638 persons in Shaikh Yasin camp, 1,914 families with 8,065 persons in Shaikh Shahzad camp, while 42 families comprising 200 persons are lodged in Sarhadi Lutheran Church camp. In total there are 32,725 persons lodged in the four camps. Most of the families here belong to the working class. While the affluent people of Swat fled early and managed to take refuge either in the houses of their relatives/friends or in government school building, much better than the tents.

According to District Nazim of Mardan, there are 1.23 million IDPs living with host families in Mardan, while 611 school buildings are being used to provide shelter to IDPs.

Despite hefty amount of foreign aid the poor situation of IDPs in these camps speaks volumes about hollow political and moral rhetoric of the provincial as well as federal governments. The report below is based on our direct observation and discussions with the IDPs in these camps. A number of IDPs including men, women and children shared their views on the Taliban, Army and America .

The Majority of the IDPs were of the view that both Americans and Taliban are evil, and have made people’s lives hell by flushing them out of their homes. They said that the majority of the population has migrated from Swat but still some people have stayed in Swat. The army has asked these people to vacate the area as soon as possible otherwise they will be treated as Taliban. The relatives in camps have no information about them as the army has cut off all communication means.

People were equally critical of the military operation in Swat and they believe that it is launched under US pressure against Taliban. “The army also connived with some groups of Taliban and it is not sincere in its attempts to crush them. Many Taliban have gone into hiding in safe places and civilians are being killed in the name of collateral damage”, some men at the camps commented. They demanded the government to give a deadline for this operation as they wanted to go back to their homes as early as possible.

Notwithstanding the fact that every family has been provided with a tent and nobody is without shelter, life is miserable for these families in the sizzling heat above 40 degree Celsius. It is hard to imagine life in the tents with no electricity coupled with hostile weather and poor amenities.

There were few dispensaries, quality medicines and proper treatment. Due to poor medical services a large number of people, especially elderly people and children are suffering from diseases like Diarrhea, dysentery, skin diseases, eye sores and throat infections due to the consumption of unsafe drinking water, the smell from filthy toilets and inappropriate food, etc.

Water availability is also poor. Families have to use the same water tank for their toilet as well drinking purposes. Though water purification tablets are provided to families due to lack of orientation only few women use these tablets. The situation of Unicef-made pit toilets is very bad as there is no water supply system to these toilets. They are full of a foul smell. Moreover, the bsence of washrooms and separate toilets for women has added to the miseries of women. These filthy toilets being close to living areas is permanent source of unpleasant smells.

As far as the food is concerned, the local municipal corporation of Mardan has outsourced the provision of meals to local contractors. These contractors prepare food in big pots (Degs) and distribute them among the people standing in queues. In these queues one can see only men and children getting food. Women do not come out of their tents to get their share of food. The usual breakfast is tea and chapatti (sometimes left over), lunch comprises daal/beef with chapatti, while dinner is normally daal and rice with tea. Most people have complaints about the quality of food. They said that separate food should be prepared for elderly people, children and pregnant mothers.

The good thing is that small children are duly engaged in educational activities. Unicef is providing primary educational service to these children, including school bags and books. Since government schools are closed in Mardan, and teachers were free, these govt school teachers have offered their services to teach children in tent schools.

Women's issues are the most prominent aspect at IDP camps. A 25-member crew of government Women Health Workers is based at these camps. They told us that the lack of medicines for IDPs especially pregnant women is a vital problem. There are around 100 pregnant women living in Sheikh Yasin Camp but not enough medicines for these women. These women are highly vulnerable to hot and adverse climatic conditions. They also have not adequate health facilities in the case of an emergency. These women are in dire need of better accommodation, multi vitamins, including proper food with milk and fruits etc. These pregnant women along with their families should be immediately shifted to a comparatively better place with better climatic and health and food facilities.

One can observe girls up to 7/8 years roaming around camps but above that age, you cannot see any young girl or women around. Surely they are there, but are all invisible, concealed inside the tents. This is an additional misery to be a displaced woman, as they are to be confined inside the tent with dropped entrance. They said it is our culture women cannot go outside. The horrible combination of strict religious norms and oppressive tribal culture has added to the woes of these women. This horrific misery is an enemy itself for these women.

Orphans and widows are facing even tougher conditions. To get food and relief items you have to stand in the queue but women and young orphan girls are not ready to come out of their “ovens”. So in most cases they are ignored and deprived of their right. The women have a lot to share. Everybody has a story to tell but pathetic are the stories of women inside these tents.

Jan sultana, a grandmother of a 2-year old boy said that she is looking after the child as his mother was left behind in Swat and there is no information about her. She might have been killed. The sick child was suffering from fever and chest infection for the last 15 days.

Hadia, a widow from village Qabaal in said that 6 months ago she and her husband got injured in a bombardment by the Pakistan Army, killing her husband on the spot, while she got her both killers.

Naheed from the village of Tahiraabd, Mingora, said that she is the mother of a new born 3-day old baby. She was at camp for last 12 days. She had to travel a long distance on foot in her pregnant condition from Mingora to this camp. It took her 13 hours to reach here “After three day curfew the army forced us to leave the area, I was crying with pain, walking all the way from Mingora which is about 15 Km. My feet were swollen and my legs were aching”, she said.

Yet another woman, Rajmeena, a mother of nine from Mingora town said that it took her 10 hours to reach this camp along with her 9 children. She was critical about the tent, food and health facilities. “This is the third war in span of two years and we are worried about the safety of our homes. The Taliban are looters and murderers. They have killed many women who incidentally went out in the market without the company of any male member. They would plunder everything”, she cried with tears in her eyes. We want to go back to our homes; we want the Taliban, army and America out of our beautiful Swat.

24 May 2009

By Bushra Khaliq

Source: SPN