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Battle for minds plays out in Pakistani camps

At the entrance to the Hazrat Usman camp just south of the Swat Valley, a welcoming committee greets those fleeing violence between the government and militants with a cool glass of water, a meal and a place to sleep with fans and a pharmacy.

Though camp organizers don’t voice any overt sympathy for the Taliban, their view is clear: The entire crisis is a creation of the government and the army.

Two miles up the road sits the much larger government-run Jalala camp. It is hot, mosquito-ridden and busy turning newcomers away. Water, food and medicine are in short supply, tempers flare and many people are forced to sleep in the open -- a particular indignity for women in this Islamic society.

If counterinsurgency is about hearts and minds, the rapid, efficient way some Islamic groups have aided the needy amid the recent army offensive against the Taliban -- and the lumbering state response -- suggests the hard-liners could win the battle that counts.

The various private efforts like Hazrat Usman often benefit from the goodwill generated when helping just a few thousand people. By contrast, the government, already under suspicion for unleashing its firepower in the region, faces criticism if it falls short in any respect when addressing the needs of millions.

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The two camps offer refuge to some of the 1.3 million people the United Nations estimates have fled the fighting between the Pakistani army and the Taliban since the fall. Though many of those displaced by the latest conflict have shunned such camps, preferring to squeeze in with relatives whenever possible, the camps remain vital to a large number of families with no alternatives.

Anyone displaced from their home faces difficulty and frustration, but the government camps are providing necessary services, said Syed Jamaluddin, the provincial government’s commissioner for displaced people. Though registering people, a requirement for their receiving aid, takes time, it helps prevent problems such as embezzlement, he said.

“Whenever people leave home, they’re angry,” he said. “But things are improving and the government is taking care of all their requirements.”

So far, public support nationwide remains solidly behind the government in its fight against the militants.

Amid growing public concern over the state’s handling of the humanitarian crisis, army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani on Wednesday ordered troops to minimize civilian casualties in Swat and neighboring districts even if it meant endangering their own lives. Managing the displaced was as important as the military operation, he said in a message to soldiers.

Eleven militants and five soldiers had been killed in the previous 24 hours, the military said Wednesday, with five headless bodies found in Mingora, Swat’s main town. The reports could not be independently verified.

Haji Gul and Ismael Shamoozai, principal organizers at the Hazrat Usman camp, said they launched their relief efforts soon after civilians started flooding out because the government wasn’t responding. They contacted a contractor for approval to use an unfinished hospital and took over a primary school just behind a local landmark, the family-run Kalashnikov Detergent Co., which by all accounts sells only soap despite its blazing assault rifle logo.

Seven days later, Hazrat Usman was feeding and housing 700 people, providing meals for an additional 300 civilians passing through and dispensing transportation stipends for impoverished travelers trying to connect with family members or friends.

Such local efforts often depend on charities, area merchants and individuals who donate assistance.

“Everyone here is very angry at the government,” said Gul. “Our funding comes from local donors and also from God, who provides us with whatever we need.”

Shamoozai said that they had received the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of juice, rice, medicine and other supplies from concerned donors, with costs running about $5,000 a day.

In one of the cool, high-ceilinged classrooms at Hazrat Usman -- named for Islam’s Third Caliph (AD 573-656) -- several women covered their faces as a stranger entered. Twenty-four people from two families have been sleeping on the floor of the 20-by-30-foot room covered with thin carpets and mats.

“I saw the government camp and I didn’t like it,” said Sardar Rahim, 20, a tailor from Swat, who escaped the violence with seven family members. “We fled because the army was dropping bombs on us. I have no complaints at Hazrat Usman. They provide what we need without charge.”

Though the government camp doesn’t charge either, occupants say supplies are often limited.

Down the road from Swat Valley, a steady stream of buses, trucks, cars and pedestrians teeming with humanity coursed toward Mardan, the nearest big city, some people carrying nothing but a small satchel, others with beds, chairs, food containers and the family cow jammed into small pickup trucks.

“The army wasn’t focused on the Taliban, it dropped artillery indiscriminately,” said Mohammad Anwar, 56, a laborer from Mingora, the largest town in Swat, which is still under Taliban control.

“We left Swat because army rockets were hitting us and the government told us they would provide everything in the camps,” Anwar said. “But that’s been a lie. . . . The army created such a panic that some people even left their children behind.”

His statement could not be verified, but it echoed comments made by many of those displaced.

A few bends up the road from Hazrat Usman in the direction of Swat, past lumbering trucks filled with U.N. relief supplies, new entrants staggered into sprawling Jalala camp with its estimated population of 8,000. Rows of tents stretched as far as the eye could see, the 95-degree heat making them shimmer in the distance.

Along a walkway down the spine of the camp, sweating men labored over wood fires as they transferred cooked rice into massive serving troughs using shovels. A nearby water container marked “Unicef” had gone dry, and a cloud of flies hovered over a row of recently built toilets.

“My wife is having a baby in two days. She needs protein and the government is giving us nothing,” said Naik Amal, 30, a teacher, who’s been in Jalala for six days. “We ask for medicine -- the doctors say they don’t have any. Rich people stay in hotels -- we’re forced to stay here. I feel desperate and angry.”

Displaced people in any international crisis are stressed and a potential source of instability, experts said. And many of those fleeing the Swat, Buner and Dir districts walked for days to escape the violence, saw neighbors die in the crossfire and worry that their possessions will be stolen during their absence.

Swat resident Sher Wali, 70, was among those who were not staying at one of the camps, setting up a makeshift tent wedged between railroad tracks and a wastewater canal south of the camps and a few miles closer to Mardan.

“I have no ID card, I lost everything, and the government refused to give me help,” Wali said.

“I don’t know what President [Asif Ali] Zardari is doing, but we’re living in hell,” chimed in his tent neighbor and fellow Swat refugee Sumandar Khan. “They’re doing nothing.”

If the government adds to the frustration of the displaced people by failing to provide basic services quickly, even as private groups with alternate agendas excel, the government risks a perilous political backlash, experts said.

“If there isn’t an improvement in government efficiency soon, it could alienate people in huge numbers,” said Abbas Rashid, an independent political analyst. “If people start to feel the government doesn’t care, by default it could push them into the other camp.”

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mark.magnier@latimes.com


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