Pakistan’s “Forgotten Crisis”
In just two months, more than 1 million people — including 456,000 children — have been displaced by the Pakistani military’s offensive against militants in North Waziristan, according to figures released earlier this month by the United Nations.
The exodus began when the Pakistani military launched a major offensive on June 15 on what’s believed to be the last stronghold of Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked militants in the country. After two weeks of air strikes that drove civilians from their homes, the military began a ground operation.
The staggering number of internally displaced people, or IDPs, was double what United Nations agencies in the area had prepared for.
“We are really concerned about the health of tens of thousands of IDPs,” the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Pakistan representative Neill Wright said in mid-July. At the time, Wright said the UNHCR only had the resources to provide tents and other non-food items for 500,000 people for six months.
“Part of the problem is this has become a forgotten crisis,” Dr. Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director for International Crisis Group, told FRONTLINE. “There’s not any attention being paid by the international media, and there’s a reason for that: There are so many other massive displacements and conflicts that the world has focused its attention on. IDPs from North Waziristan aren’t getting the kind of attention they should be getting.”
Pakistan is no stranger to dealing with large numbers of displaced persons, as it received millions of refugees from Afghanistan over decades of war, and has at least 930,000 citizens who were displaced from previous military campaigns in its tribal areas, including South Waziristan, Swat Valley and Bajaur, over the last decade.
“The impact of this movement is not as bad as it could have been if Pakistan lacked that capacity,” Hassan Abbas, an academic and author of The Taliban Revival, told FRONTLINE. “Having said that, it’s currently summer there, so it’s easy. Once winter sets in, we will see more casualties, more challenges, and Pakistan will need far more resources.”
However, the Pakistani government seems to have been less prepared to deal with this current crisis notes Huma Yusuf, a Pakistani columnist and a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center.
“In previous operations there was a lot more planning to deal with the IDPs, to get them settled in parts of Pakistan and then get them back to the tribal areas, back to their homes as quickly as possible,” Yusuf said. “In this operation, there’s been almost no planning.”
Observers fear that militants may be stepping into that vacuum. “What should be of concern is the fact that jihadi organizations, some really dangerous ones, are providing assistance to IDPs in these camps, and walking alongside the IDPs,” Ahmed explained.
“The hearts-and-minds campaign that they are running through their charity fronts, for a population that has lost everything and isn’t getting the assistance it desperately needs, that’s the real threat,” she continued. “The people don’t have any choice but to take that assistance. Would some be desperate enough to become recruits? That’s an open question.”
In June, a reporter from The Christian Science Monitor visited Bannu, a city bordering North Waziristan, and found volunteers from religious extremist groups operating in the IDP camps.
“They are our Muslim brothers and we are doing this for Allah,” said Mohammad Sarfaraz, the organizer of one relief camp, which was run by the charitable wing of Jamat-ud-Dawa, a group designated as a terrorist group by the United States.
“This is an opportunity to win their hearts,” Sarfaraz said. “The government is failing at doing so, but we will not.”
Experts suggest that Western aid could help in neutralizing the threat.
“The United States has been incredibly generous in its assistance in other humanitarian crises, for example when the earthquake hit Kashmir [in 2005],” Ahmed noted. “I think this is the time for the U.S. to pay far more attention to the humanitarian crisis in FATA. If the U.S. reaches out … there’s enormous good will that it will get.”