Pashtun Code of Hospitality Means Relief for Pakistani Refugees, Hardship for Hosts

The battle for Swat, which is seen as a crucial test in Pakistan's war with radical Islamist insurgents, has forced about 2 million civilians to flee the area.

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By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

MADHEY BABA, Pakistan, June 1 -- When Khalil ul-Rahman's houseguests arrived in this northwestern Pakistani village, they brought with them the clothes on their backs, two cows and little else.

That was a month ago. Since then, Rahman, a 43-year-old donkey-cart driver, has been solely responsible for sheltering and feeding the 22 distant relatives who have chosen his home as their haven from the fighting that rages between the army and the Taliban in their native district of Dir.

"Yes, it's a burden," said Rahman, who earns a little more than $50 a month hauling crates of produce and bundles of wood. "But they came to my home. There was no other option. As a Pashtun, I couldn't say no."

Approximately 3 million people have fled the fighting in Dir, Buner and the Swat Valley over the past month, marking the largest migration in Pakistan since the country's partition from India in 1947. With room for only a small fraction of them in government-run camps, the vast majority have had to turn to charities or private individuals.

Because of the culture of extreme hospitality that prevails here, few have lacked for a place to stay. Pashtuns, who predominate in Pakistan's northwest, live by an ancient, unwritten honor code known as Pashtunwali, which dictates that a host must provide shelter, food and water for his guests, no matter how many there are or how long they stay.

In many ways, Pashtunwali has been the refugees' salvation. But it has also become a curse for their hosts, who are silently buckling under the strain.

As civilians continue to flee the scenes of the fighting, aid groups and government officials are concerned that the host communities could also become destabilized as they run out of money and resources trying to help their guests.

"We're basically seeing host community populations more than double in some of these areas. The local infrastructure just can't cope," said Graham Strong, country director for World Vision, an international aid group trying to alleviate the strain.

The areas where the displaced families have congregated are generally poor and rural, with families needing robust wheat and tobacco harvests just to get by. Now, some are giving up their animals or their land to avoid committing what would be, under Pashtunwali, a grave offense.

"It's extremely shameful for host families or communities to start asking people to leave," Strong added. "So people are selling their assets just to continue hosting."

That could create an opening for the Taliban, which already has a nascent presence in this area and tends to do best in areas where economic conditions are worst.

Khalid Khan Umerzai, commissioner for Mardan and Swabi, two districts where displaced families nearly outnumber residents, said the tide of refugees has forced authorities to shutter schools so they can be turned into makeshift camps. It has pushed hospitals to the breaking point, as refugees demand care for diarrhea-stricken children and elderly parents whose hearts failed on their arduous journeys. Now, Umerzai said, the local government worries that police won't be able to keep up with so many unfamiliar faces.


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