WITH the Pakistan Army’s attack on the militants in North Waziristan, a human tragedy of gargantuan proportions has been unfolded. Unsurprisingly, the government failed to anticipate the consequences of this move and did not act in time to avert a catastrophe. It has only compounded the crisis the country faces.
The latest avoidable disaster to visit us is that of the internally displaced people or IDPs — the hapless victims of Operation Zarb-i-Azb — who have been forced to leave their homes in North Waziristan. This was inevitable if Pakistan is to be saved from our self-created Frankenstein that was intended to provide the country with the questionable advantage of strategic depth. The crackdown has come, belatedly though, with no preparations for the aftermath.
As a result we have the suffering of nearly 450,000 IDPs on our conscience. This phenomenon could have been anticipated. It just required greater sensitivity from those whose responsibility it is under international humanitarian law — specifically the Geneva Convention IV, 1949 — to protect the rights of civilians displaced by hostilities in war-affected areas. Under this convention one doesn’t even have to cross an international boundary to become an IDP. And 75pc of those who have fled their homes are women and children.
Shocking reports are emanating from Bannu and other areas receiving the IDP exodus from Fata. Stories are legion of hunger and thirst in the face of unsatisfactory food distribution programmes, transporters fleecing people desperate and fatigued, scarce shelter, inadequate healthcare for the ailing and women giving birth to babies unattended.
The latest disaster to visit us is that of the IDPs.
What we see today is a replay of what happened in 2009 when the army launched its operation in Swat/Malakand. Only this time the numbers and magnitude of suffering of the IDPs are much bigger. Unfortunately, the IDPs have not been provided what is their due in their hour of trial.
It was in 2009 that a group of concerned citizens led by one of Pakistan’s most vocal activists, Tahira Abdullah, got together to work with their Swat-based partners the Khwendo Kor to provide whatever relief they could. Their commitment took them to IDPs lodged in government-sponsored camps as well as with local host families. This humanitarian act of reaching out to people in distress touched many hearts.
Now we have another crisis on our hands and this brave 2009+ Group, as it calls itself, is out again trying to stir up the public conscience. The IDPs’ need for financial and material help remains as dire as ever. Given their poverty and the underdevelopment of their region, the people of North Waziristan are by and large not in a position to help themselves. It is time people extended a helping hand in their hour of need.
Worse still is the politicisation of the IDP crisis that is indicative of the perverse mindset of those in office. In a statement last week, the 2009+ Group deplored the inhumane approach of the Sindh and Punjab governments to slam the door on IDPs. There are unconfirmed reports of some district administrations — as of Islamabad and Charsadda — barring the entry of IDPs.
This is not new. It has been attempted before and we are doing it again and the Group’s statement terms it “inhuman, unconstitutional and illegal which will have long-term negative effects on our so-called ‘national pluralist multi-ethnic identity’ and our national image”.
This is the most disturbing aspect of this tragedy: the expression of disowning our own people when they need us most. We know that many of the fears articulated are unfounded and nebulous.
In 2009, the IDPs from Swat faced similar barriers. It was argued that the ethnic composition of the province would change because the IDPs would never return home. They did. The family from Swat I visited in Baldia (Karachi) was helpless and unhappy with the change in environment. It even found the smells of the city unbearable compared to the fragrance of the green valleys of Swat.
In Karachi it was argued that militants would smuggle into the city with the IDPs who were stereotyped as ‘Pakhtun terrorists’. But we know that even without the IDPs the Taliban infiltrated Karachi. Only efficient intelligence could have pre-empted their entry.
The will to wipe out the Taliban never existed. They were regarded as ‘strategic assets’. Read Carlotta Gall’s The Wrong Enemy to understand where we went wrong. To blame the IDPs for Karachi’s woes is sheer crassness.
Karachi has seen a lot of violence and we know that the Taliban are not the only ones to have inflicted it on the city. Political parties, including those in the government, have sought control over their fiefdom not through statesmanship but by resorting to violence, extortion and blackmail. The Taliban have contributed their share in this turf war. But not the IDPs who are trapped in a situation not of their making.
Published in Dawn, July 2nd, 2014