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Pakistani Refugee Crisis Poses Peril

Amid Army Offensive, Extremists Are Filling Needs That the Government Can't

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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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.

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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."


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