‘The ignored face of Eve’, Women in Refugee Camp in Risalpur

By Ayesha Tammy Haq

(The writer is a corporate lawyer and host of a weekly talk show on Satellite television and a freelance columnist)

The bombing in Bajaur started early last month and has been relentless. United Nations estimates that around three hundred thousand people have fled the area. Some went to live with host families in Dir and Malakand but the majority made their way down to Murdan from where they were sent to one of the many camps set up to deal with the influx of what the UN politely calls “internally displaced people” but who are in reality homeless at home- refugees in their own country.

At the Government Boys High school Risalpur, a few miles from Nowshera, one of the many refuge camps has been set, up to cater to some of this huge internal displacement from Bajaur. The daily steady stream of refugees continues, because despite the government’s announcement of a unilateral ceasefire for the month of Ramzan, the bombing by the Pakistani and US forces has continued unabated. The faces of despair and hopelessness say it all. Tired, hungry and terrified tens of thousands of men women and children have run the gauntlet and made their way down what they hope will be a safe heaven.

The camp, barely six weeks old was set up after the bombing started in Bajaur. It is squalid and over crowded. It lacks sanitation, has no proper management and seems to be hampered by all the plagues camps and the lack funds. Refugee camps are never good places to be, and despite all good intentions and in some cases, hug efforts to the contrary; they are the embodiments of neglect and tragedy.

The North West Frontier Province is not unfamiliar with refuge camps, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and then the civil war that followed in Afghanistan saw a massive influx of refugees into
Pakistan. Humanitarian aid and the international committee not withstanding the camps where miserable and management left to be desired. A woman unaccompanied by a father, husband, son or other male family member was treated like a non person, the camp administration refused to register them, as a result they were not entitled to accommodation, food, or what ever little was on offer and called life and were forced to subside on the margins of camp society. Not much of a difference in the way they were treated by the Taliban. Today the situation in the camps is pretty much the same; unaccompanied women face the same problems. Having fled the war they are not met with the
new and enlightened administration that should have learnt lessons from the past but by an administration that seems to have not only learnt nothing it treat them pretty much the same way as the Taliban treats women as non people with no rights.

Women in the camps I visited had been confronted by this problem as well and it was only when a group of foreign journalists saw what was going on and asked why “unaccompanied” women were not being registered and why Talibanesque values were being employed in the camps did those in charge do an about turn and registered the women. Shockingly all this is happening at a time when the government of the day claims to espouse secular liberal values.

Women are not unaccompanied out of choice; this is after all a tribal society where a women’s status is tied to that of a man. Some of the women have lost their husbands to the bombing. This is the human face of this war that is being fought in a place far away and does not touch us, even though our new government has claimed it as our war. One of the women I met have lost her husband in the first attack and when the village evacuated to the refuge camps her only son stayed behind to protect the family property, which was a small piece of land with the mud brick house and some livestock which are now their solo source of income. The distraught mother only wept and prayed for the safety of her son. Poverty and a lack of options are what led to this family having to make this terrible choice.

Once they have been registered and allocated accommodation women are required to observe strict PURDAH that means staying inside the tent, which through the heat of August and September is like living in a fly infested furnace. The tents are small, made of canvas and house an entire family. The better furnished ones have some matting for the inmates to sit and sleep on. Most have one simple mat through which they damp of the soil comes through resulting in respiratory and other
problems. These sound terrible but are the latest of their problems ass the camps lack basic sanitation and facilities are lacking, as a result diarrhea endemic, measles and cholera have broken out and the
main causality are children. These are children who are dying of diseases in the camps every day and cannot be buried at home, weeps a mother who has lost her daughter to cholera, who will come to the
child’s grave when we return home she asks.

Internal displacement is one thing each family has its own story to tell there is some tragedy attached to just about every one. The local school, teacher, a young man, got married the day before the bombing. He can not find his wife. He stayed behind to look for her. All the money he had saved to start a new life was spent on getting out of Bajaur, making it to Mardan and looking for his wife and her family in the many camps. It’s been five weeks and he has not been able to find her. She may be in Dir or Malakand or some other place, he will have to wait to find her. He has no money left his teachers salary will only be paid when he goes back home and he can’t risk going home until the bombing stops. There are children who have been orphan by the fighting. A 12 year old was now parent to her four and six year old siblings.

It is heartbreaking and yet the bombing continue. The humanitarian crisis is on such a large scale yet it does not merit much mention or space in the press. These lives too are precious and you cannot raise a generation in a war, squalor, in fear and expect it to be the peace makers of tomorrow.

All the people I spoke to say the same thing, they wanted to be a part of Pakistan and to be treated like Pakistani and with enforceable rights. They want to see developments, schools, hospitals, jobs better and safer futures of their children. None of them claimed to support the Taliban. In fact they said they did not want the system of governance that the Taliban had on offer, they want to see the
constitution of Pakistan apply to them not the frontier crimes regulation act, they want to know that they have rights and a say in their futures. They are innocent civilians and are bearing the burnt
of this war one just hope that we don’t lose them.

Khadijah shah
Rays of Development Organization, Sargodha , Pakistan.

Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. Sheher Bano

     /  May 28, 2010

    Good to know what these “voiceless” people we never get to hear have to say. It seems their fate is as controlled by others as their voices and we can get to see one side on popular media in the West.


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