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U.S. Offers Aid to Pakistan Amid Refugee Crisis

May 19, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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As many as two million Pakistanis have fled the fighting between the Taliban and the Pakistani army, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Tuesday pledged $110 million in humanitarian aid to the region. Washington Post reporter Pamela Constable updates the situation.

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, our Pakistan update.

Nearly 2 million refugees have fled the fighting as the Pakistan army tries to roll back the Taliban from the Swat Valley.

At the White House today, Secretary of State Clinton said the U.S. would offer Pakistan $110 million in aid. She said the U.S. needed to stand firmly with Pakistan.

HILLARY CLINTON, secretary of State: The humanitarian relief is the right thing to do, no matter what the politics. I mean, people are in need. They’re having to leave their homes and their possessions. We hope that they’ll be able to return home quickly if the military not only clears the Taliban from their communities, but also holds that ground, with a combination of military and policing forces.

But this is a tough battle. And I don’t think anybody should underestimate how difficult it is for the Pakistani military to wage this battle in very challenging terrain. I mean, I don’t know how many of you have either flown over or visited that terrain, but this is hard.

And that’s why what the Pakistanis are doing now deserves our full support. They’re doing it. And we’re encouraging them to do it because we think it’s in their interests, but we also believe it’s in the interests of our long-term struggle against extremism and, in particular, the al-Qaida network.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner takes the story from there.

MARGARET WARNER: And with me is Pamela Constable, Washington Post bureau chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan. She has just returned from a reporting and photographing trip to several refugee camps near the city of Mardan.

And, Pam, welcome back.

PAMELA CONSTABLE, Washington Post: Thank you very much.

MARGARET WARNER: It must feel good to be home.


Refugee camps seem orderly

MARGARET WARNER: So the U.N. is calling the refugee situation "volatile." What did you find when you went to these camps, in terms of the conditions under which they're living?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Well, I found that there was quite a lot of orderly arrangement. There wasn't a sense of chaos. There were long lines for people to get their I.D. cards. They've got a rather onerous registration process, but people seem to have the supplies they need, the water and the food and the tents. There were lots and lots of tents going up.

But I think, when they mentioned volatility, part of the problem is, number one, it's going to be a very hot summer, and there's hope that this doesn't last too far into the summer and people start to really get unhappy.

And, number two, there's a lot of concern that, you know, among the refugees, there may be some infiltration by Taliban or other extremists, you know, in guise of, you know, your average person. So there's a lot of concern about that.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, tell us about some of the people you met. You have a photograph of a boy in a tent with some goats. What is the story behind that?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Well, he and his family, like many of these families from these villages and the districts of Swat and Buner, which were first sort of under the abuse of the Taliban and then suddenly coming under retaliatory attack from the army, people just grabbed whatever they could.

And these are mostly peasants with farms, small farms and animals, and so they couldn't bring their livestock, but many of the families grabbed sort of the nearest animal. And this family grabbed a goat who was about to give birth. And she had these two baby kids just as they arrived in this camp. And this little boy was frantically trying to find some grass or clover to feed the goats, so it was a very touching little scene.

MARGARET WARNER: There's another touching photograph, or sort of a heartrending photograph, of four boys. It looks like they're in a stable.


Refugees on a mass exodus

MARGARET WARNER: Who are they?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: That's a different place. They were one of the first families actually to flee from Swat before the massive exodus began about a week, a week-and-a-half ago.

And this was a family, believe it or not, an extended family of about 70 people who had managed to get all the way on foot and then, by renting vans or a bus or a truck all the way almost to Islamabad, to the capital, and somebody had found them, this stable, in this sort of little outlying village. And this family was sort of just crammed into this dirt floors. I mean, there they were with nothing.

MARGARET WARNER: And did you speak to some of the adults in the group?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Yes. There was the sort of the patriarch of the family who was a very articulate man, not educated, but had lots to say. And I was very moved by what he said and very saddened by what he said, because he said that, when the Taliban fighters first came into their little village, they were preaching, "You know, we're going to bring justice. We're going to bring peace and sort of religious order and fairness." And they were really talking in a very persuasive way to these people. And they were received well by the people.

And then, he said, just two days later, they saw these Taliban fighters grab the local policeman and start chopping off his head. And the whole village was just horror-struck. They managed to save the man's life and get him away and hide him, but he said, "All of us from that moment on looked at each other and said, 'Who are these people? Why have they come here? Are they really Muslims? And what do they really want with us?'"

Blaming the government and the West

MARGARET WARNER: So who do they -- most of the refugees you talked to, who do they blame for their plight? I mean, do they blame the Taliban who came and took over their valley or do they blame the government forces that have launched this huge offensive?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: There's a little blame to go all around, I think. People did feel, you know, betrayed partly by the Taliban, who came promising justice and didn't -- delivered something else.

They feel angry at the government. They're very afraid of the bombing and the shelling. The practice of having a curfew that's lifted at certain times so people can escape has not been very orderly or well explained, so people have tried to make a run for it and then been forced to stay. So people are upset about that.

But they're also, you know, upset at the international community. A lot of refugees, like many Pakistanis, sort of blame the Americans, blame the West for sort of having, you know, opened this Pandora's box and created this extremist movement to fight the Soviets back in the '80s, and sort of now it's coming back to haunt everyone. And so there's a lot of resentment against the West, as well.

Questions around rebuilding

MARGARET WARNER: So what lies ahead for these people? Secretary Clinton said today the hope is that they can soon go home and start rebuilding. How feasible is that?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: I don't know. That's certainly the hope, because we're talking now about hundreds of thousands of people, I mean, you know, hundreds of villages that are completely abandoned.

Most of the people I met had never been to school. They had no skills, no livelihood. They're basically just small tenant farmers. So they really don't have anything else outside, so they really do need to go home or else they become, frankly, a burden on the rest of society.

But the greater concern is, I would say, if they do go back, what's there for them? Will the Taliban come back? Will the army stay to protect them? Will civilian authorities come in and start rebuilding the bombed buildings, and the schools, and the roads, and the clinics that will make the people feel less alienated from the government and more inclined to resist the blandishments of the Taliban? We really don't know what's going to happen.

MARGARET WARNER: So it sounds like the international and U.S. aid effort is going to be a lot more than the $110 million announced today.


MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, Pam. Pam Constable, Washington Post, thanks so much.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: You're very welcome.