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.
"We are very much concerned about law and order. The militants could have come here in the garb of the internally displaced persons," he said. Already, he said, police have arrested 42 militants who had trimmed their beards, hidden their Kalashnikov rifles and tried to blend with the refugees.
The battle began a month ago, when the Taliban rolled into Buner and Dir, violating the terms of a peace deal with the government. Under the agreement, the militants were supposed to lay down their arms in exchange for the implementation of Islamic law in the Swat Valley.
Since then, a military force of 15,000 has retaken large sections of all three districts, including Swat's main city, Mingora. The operation has pleased Obama administration officials, who were looking for signs that Pakistan was willing to take a tougher stand against rising militancy.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said recently that the next target would be South Waziristan, home base for the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda elements. Any effort to reclaim that territory could unleash another flood of refugees.
Already, the fighting in Swat, Buner and Dir has come with a heavy price for civilians. Analysts say that unless the government does a better job meeting the needs of displaced families and their hosts, it may be creating a new generation of militants.
Cash-strapped government agencies, working with aid groups, have been able to provide camps for only about 200,000 of the roughly 3 million refugees, according to government figures. A U.N. appeal for $543 million in international assistance, meanwhile, has elicited a sluggish response.
As a result, responsibility for caring for displaced families has been felt most acutely at the local level, in areas just beyond the battle zone. Attempts to spread the burden more widely have largely failed: In two of Pakistan's four provinces, Sindh and Punjab, groups have launched efforts to ban the refugees, citing fears they could be a destabilizing influence.
Rahman, the donkey-cart driver who shares his home with 22 refugees, is not expecting any help. He has resigned himself to the idea that his guests may be staying a while and that he, his wife and their 11 children will have to manage with even more crowded conditions than usual in their three-room, mud-brick home.
Rahman's guests said they have no idea how long they will stay or if they have a home in Swat to go back to. Their house was severely damaged by a Pakistani army shell that came crashing through their roof, said family elder Shah Naseem Khan, 59. Ironically, Pashtunwali was to blame, at least in part: Taliban militants had been sheltering at the home of a neighbor who felt he could not turn them away.
For the foreseeable future, Rahman will have to stretch his lowly salary to buy three times the normal amount of bread, vegetables and milk.
"They have women with them. They have children with them. They have old people with them. How can I send them away now?" Rahman asked, his weather-beaten face making him look far older than his 43 years.
Some hosts have no ties to their guests, familial or otherwise.
Mohammed Ihsan, 27, was minding the counter at his family's small general store in this village when he heard the wailing of mourners. He followed the sounds and came upon the funeral of a woman who had died of a heart attack soon after arriving from her native Swat. After the service, Ihsan invited the woman's family and some of her other relatives to stay. Three weeks later, his 17 guests are still with him. In addition to providing a roof and beds, he gives them a daily share of the milk from his water buffalo.
"It's a little hardship for us. But these people have been displaced. We had to do something for them," said Ihsan, who was recently married and who sells sacks of rice and wheat for a living. "I am a Pashtun, and we have a code for helping each other in times of trouble."
The generosity has not gone unnoticed by his guests. "We haven't seen anything from the government. But these local people have done their best to provide us food and facilities. They are very kind to help us," said Itbar Mohammed, 49. "And when the government tells us we can go back to our homes, we will go."