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Pakistani Refugee Crisis Poses Peril
Amid Army Offensive, Extremists Are Filling Needs That the Government Can't

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 25, 2009

MARDAN, Pakistan -- Bacha Zab, a 32-year-old fruit salesman, dodged army shelling and Taliban sniper fire to escape his native Swat Valley. But when he reached the safety of a government-run refugee camp in this northwestern Pakistani city, he was told there was no more room.

Instead, for the past 16 days, Zab, his wife and their four children have been in the care of a private Islamic charity with close ties to a banned militant organization. "We are asking for help from the government, but they won't give it," Zab said. "In the government camps, there are only problems."

The government has been overwhelmed by the human tide that has washed over the northwest as about 2 million people have fled fierce clashes in Swat. With Pakistan experiencing its largest exodus since the nation's partition from India in 1947, only a fraction of the displaced civilians are receiving assistance in government-run camps. The rest are fending for themselves or getting help from private charities, including some that are allied with the very forces the Pakistani army is fighting in Swat.

Refugee camps in Pakistan have been prime recruiting grounds for militant groups ever since the Soviet invasion forced millions of Afghans to cross into Pakistan in the 1980s. Now, concern is growing that this latest wave of displacement will create a fresh crop of Pakistanis with grievances against the government and loyalty to groups that seek to undermine the state through violent insurgency.

The government says it is aware of the peril, but it appears incapable of mustering the resources it needs to provide shelter, food, water and medicine to so many people.

"If people are not looked after well, they tend to become extremists. It hasn't happened yet, but we're very conscious of it," said Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for President Asif Ali Zardari. "It's a big task."

Critics say the government has badly mismanaged the crisis, having failed to prepare for a scenario that officials must have known would result from the military offensive. "They should have foreseen this, but they didn't plan for it," said Aftab Khan Sherpao, an opposition lawmaker and former interior minister who comes from the northwest. "The people are not happy with the militants, but they're not happy with the army and the government, either. Now that anger will build up."

The true dimensions of the refugee problem are apparent in Mardan, one of the primary destinations for civilians fleeing the battles in Swat and in neighboring Buner and Dir. The city is studded with refugee camps consisting of endless rows of tan canvas tents that bake under 110-degree skies. Schools are packed to capacity with families sleeping on concrete classroom floors, with each classroom housing 40 or more people. Local residents say that virtually every spare bedroom in the city is being used to host displaced civilians, who may have to wait months or longer to return home.

Save the Children, an international aid organization that is providing assistance to the displaced families, estimated late last week that more than 80 percent of the people who had fled were living outside the camps, which number about 25. More than half the refugees are children, the group says.

The Pakistani government, already battling economic troubles before it launched its offensive in Swat, is heavily dependent on international aid for its support programs. The United Nations said Friday that it was seeking $543 million in additional donations to help those displaced by the fighting. The United States has announced $110 million in aid, which includes tents, radios and generators.

In the camps, there is seething resentment toward a government that residents say has let them down many times before.

"When we were being forced out of our homes, our president was enjoying himself in the U.S.," said camp resident Syed Karim Shah, referring to a visit by Zardari to Washington just as the battle in Swat got underway. "He's cashing in on this situation, bringing in money from the West."

Shah said the money has yet to filter down to the camps, where residents complain of a lack of bathroom facilities, electricity and fans. The temperatures in Mardan far exceed those in Swat, which is cooled by its relatively high elevation and a glacier-fed river that runs through the middle of the valley.

Swat, which was once a major tourist hub and is considered among the most beautiful regions of Pakistan, has long been known for its moderate-minded population. But the Taliban in recent years has capitalized on weak and corrupt governance in the valley, offering locals an alternative form of justice that is swift and severe. The militants have controlled Swat off and on since late 2007. The government's offensive, which was launched nearly a month ago after the collapse of a peace deal and amid intense pressure from the United States, is aimed at retaking the valley once and for all.

But there were fresh signs this weekend that that may not happen soon and that the problem of displacement will worsen. The army launched an operation Saturday aimed at reclaiming the largest city in Swat, Mingora, and warned that the fight will be long and bloody. On Sunday, the army said it had captured key parts of the city -- including an intersection known locally as Slaughterhouse Square because it was used by the Taliban to hang the mutilated bodies of its enemies. Despite the army's gains, much of Mingora remains in Taliban hands, and up to 20,000 civilians are trapped in the city, caught between the military and the militants.

The army has warned that some Taliban fighters joined the fleeing residents and may have infiltrated the refugee camps. Residents of the government camps say that there is little security and that they do not feel safe there.

Outside the camps, groups with radical Islamist agendas are rushing to fill the void left by the paucity of government services. The Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation, the successor to a group known as Jamaat-ud-Dawa, has established a major presence in areas near Swat, feeding tens of thousands of displaced people and providing them with quality medical care.

Jamaat-ud-Dawa was banned late last year on suspicion of involvement in the November attacks in Mumbai that killed more than 170 people. After the ban, however, the group simply passed along its facilities and personnel to Falah-e-Insaniat, which continues to use the same insignia and slogan as the old group: "Free service in the name of Allah."

At the group's centers, which dot the landscape of Mardan, aid is dispensed by burly men with long hair, lengthy beards and firm handshakes.

Mian Adil, the group's deputy chairman in the region, said the organization focuses on serving those who have been unable to get help from the government. He said that if the refugee crisis continues, the group plans to also provide schooling for the children.

Such groups are not the only ones dispensing aid. Moderate Islamic and secular groups have also stepped up to provide a range of services to the displaced.

Just off the main road leading into Mardan, the Initiative for Development and Empowerment Axis, a secular Pakistani aid group, set up a camp late last week. Almost overnight, it was filled with 40 families. Mohammad Amad, the group's executive director, said his workers were serving an additional 1,400 people who had found shelter in homes or schools.

The group has received help from private donors and organizations, which have offered meals, clothes and money. Amad said he had asked the government for help but had received nothing.

Amad said that Pakistan, the United States and other Western countries could use the refugee crisis as an opportunity to change attitudes for the better, but that they will need to move quickly.

"We can win these people over if we give them the proper support," Amad said. "Loyalties are already eroded. They're already unhappy with the government, and they are unhappy with the West. If we're going to change that, this is the time to do it."

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