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Mitigating Disaster: Helping the Swatis.

  • Posted On: 10th June 2013
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In early May of this year, a few days after the Pakistan Army launched its offensive against the Taliban, civil society groups began to respond to the exodus of hundreds of thousands of people. Although this was extensively televised, the reality was brought home by Frontier people settled in Islamabad, and was corroborated by trips to Peshawar, Mardan, and the areas around Islamabad. Most families had been given only minutes to vacate their homes, and were unable to take anything with them. Many of the women were pregnant or had small babies, while old people who were unable to walk were carried on the backs of their sons or other relatives.

In the Islamabad and Rawalpindi area, several groups of people networked through contacts in Swat provided by friends and families, raising cash to make what they called ‘family packs’ and eventually providing envelopes of money. Their focus was not on the government-run camps, because although these initially suffered from logistical complications such as long food lines, shortages and delays in the arrival of supplies, (particularly harrowing since summer set in with a vengeance), they were managed and taken care of by the large NGOs, the UN and so on, who had adequate funding and supplies. Instead, they focused on IDPs sheltering in schools, in the ‘hujras’ and the extra quarters belonging to people in Mardan, who opened their homes and properties to the displaced, and in the small villages and towns ahead of Takht Bhai, where the UN did not work.

Three out of four of the women whom I talked to worked directly or indirectly with Falaknaz, whose husband, an MPA in Takht Bhai, died in a car bomb explosion just a few days before Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. They commend her dedication and tirelessness. Her brother, an MPA from Mardan, reconnoitred for families in schools, factories and homes in small villages. Fatima Hameed praises Shahida Bibi from Mardan, whose mission was to make lists of required items and where to direct them, and who opened her home as a distribution center for supply trucks, as did Arif and Shireen, cousins of Farida Adil.

A feature of relief efforts by Fauzia Minallah was the art workshops that she organized for children, using poster paints, basic brushes and cotton to paint on. At one workshop which I attended at Satra Meel on the road to Murree, there were over fifty children of varying ages from one extended family, starting from five years and going up to the late teens. Towards the middle of the session, youths in their late adolescence and young mothers joined in, each group sitting at different ends of the ‘canvas’, with the smaller children interspersed between them. The young men painted a landscape of Swat, while the children and their mothers, who are frequently proficient embroiderers, painted stylized flowers. It was difficult to tear the mothers away from their work, even when their children tugged at their chadars, testament to the fact that creative activity can be wonderful therapy for the distressed.

In talking to four women who worked throughout the campaign, making repeated trips to Mardan and the areas around it to deliver supplies and find out necessities which they would fill on subsequent trips, I asked about their experiences. The accounts are based on questions on how people reacted to their displacement; did the relief workers think that the experience will change them? How generous were people with giving donations, and how were these used?

Fauzia Minallah: The country on the whole is going through an economic crisis, and for the IDPs there was the added stigma of being considered as supportive of the Taliban. There were security concerns and these were in part justified in the context of the circumstances, although the protest against IDPs entering Sindh was very ugly.

But there were also instances of the beauty of the human spirit. The amount of money raised by the friends and family of each person was amazing: for instance, one of my friends collected nearly ten lakhs just using these resources. The majority of our donors are middle class Pakistanis, journalists, artists and other professionals. Initially we asked for donations in kind, but we later accepted cash.

We provided food packs to nearly five thousand families in Mardan, Swabi, Peshawar and the Islamabad area, and at the end we began giving away cash. Since the families in the camps were largely taken care of by the government and the NGOs, we looked for people who were not readily visible, staying with host families or in schools and factories. This was done on the advice of Falaknaz, who reasoned that such families had no contact with the government and were very badly off. This was later confirmed by the Human Rights Commission.

Our relief work included minority groups, such as Sikhs and Christians. Additionally, we organized art workshops for young children and adolescents. One of the murals painted by Muslim children about Sikhism featured a Sikh boy and girl with symbols from their religion. The other half of the mural was painted at Panja Sahib in Hasan Abdal by Sikh children, featuring a Muslim boy and girl with Muslim symbols. It made us feel that the children were trying to reach out and create harmony.

Farida Adil: It was a very humbling experience. Here were people who had lost everything in minutes: entire livelihoods, a year’s worth of crops or fruit; and in most cases they were unable to bring anything with them, whether it was cash or clothes or jewellery. They didn’t know when they would be able to go back, or what would be left when they actually did. They were unable to save anything because even if they left behind a family member to see to the harvest, he could do nothing because there was a constant battle raging. Sometimes even if you had money it was useless. One man told me that he and his family walked for miles before they saw a Suzuki. He took off his wife’s earrings and bracelet and offered them to the driver, who refused to accept them, saying that he was on his way to pick up another family from whom he had already taken money.

Both men and women found it very difficult to absorb the idea of what had happened to them, or to accept charity. One young woman told me how she had never worn someone else’s clothes, and did so with great reluctance, washing the suit beforehand. And these were very poor people, even in the village where they came from. The used clothes we donated were all washed and in most cases ironed.

Men from more well off families staying in government camps found it very hard to stand in food lines, which were so long that frequently they would reach the table only to find that time was up and they would have to queue again the next day, which in some cases they refused to do.

On my first visit to the government camps of Sheikh Yasin and Sheikh Shahzad, which was during the first few days of the operation, I saw a very old, scrawny man who was holding up a piece of paper and shouting to the management that he had been given nothing, he had nothing with him, not even a bedsheet or clothing. He said that he was given food and told to wait until further notice, but should keep the paper as a receipt. ‘What am I supposed to do with this paper?’ he shouted. ‘I’ve been waiting for a week. Am I supposed to lick it?’ He was so angry that he actually began to lick it, and had to be calmed down by those around him.

But the IDPs were very grateful to the people of Mardan, who opened their homes to them. These were people who were not always well off themselves; but they housed and fed them, sending a portion of food to their displaced neighbours each time they cooked. It was only at the end that the refugees began to feel very discouraged, although they were well provided for. All they wanted was to go home, and by the end of June, they began to leave, especially those who belong to Buner and Mingora. You have to remember that they weren’t really refugees: they were victims of internal unrest.

As far as donations were concerned, people gave money very freely, and trusted us completely. PIA employees gathered four truck loads of family packs, which included items like bedsheets, clothing, basic food items, biscuits and dried milk. Later, a cousin of mine who was collecting money in Faisalabad was approached by a local industrialist who wanted to go Mardan himself. He spent an evening distributing over twenty lakh rupees, giving five thousand rupees to each family in the schools that he visited. There was no red tape-ism and no media.

Sophiya Ali: I worked with a cousin, Falak Naz, who called in for donations as the UN limit was Takht Bhai and beyond that all relief work was through individual efforts.

Initially we put together family packs which included food, bedding, clothing and shoes. Later, though, we began giving away envelopes with three thousand rupees per family. We realized that even if you provide food, people need cash. We found families sitting by the roadside trying to sell the food that had been given them, and when we asked them why they were doing this, they said that they had no money.

One of the reasons was that they needed cash was to get identity cards. In the panic of leaving, many men left these at home, and registration and therefore shelter was impossible without them. NADRA charged fifty rupees per card copy, and they couldn’t pay. One young woman with a very tiny baby, whose husband worked in the Gulf, had to leave her baby in the camp and go from place to place, from Peshawar to Nowshera and at least two other places, trying to find a copy of her husband’s identity card. There were other women whose husbands work abroad, who needed the same. They had never been out of their homes, let alone their villages, so you can imagine what they went through.

Even without this, cash was a necessity. I think it gave people a sense of dignity and they were able to buy things that were necessary to them. In some cases these were medical. There was a young woman who was full term pregnant and couldn’t lie on the floor, and the money came in useful for buying a bed.

I’m not sure if people will change. This is a society which has always been conservative, and long term change is not possible without education. Birth control and the idea of small families will only happen when people understand their benefits.

However, with regard to the Taliban, most people were glad that the operation was taking place, although initially when Maulana Fazlullah began his broadcasts the women in particular liked him because he was using the radio to give them religious knowledge. It was only later that they realized that the Taliban were becoming a menace, because they began to bother people very directly.

Fatima Hameed: A few days after the operation began, I met an old friend, Saira Hoti, through our college network. She told me about the work that Falaknaz was doing. I realized that this was an ideal opportunity to make a trip to Mardan, as they are both from the area and speak the language, making it easy for me to understand what was going on.

For the last few years I have run Adal Trust with three friends, and through this we collected donations. Since the organization is audited, all accounts are transparent and when I asked people to donate, through a text message circular as well as via email, they did so without hesitation. A friend in Canada raised large sums of money through the Pakistani community, and the students of Mc Gill University must be thanked for their generous contributions.

Like many of us, I went to a wholesale dealer who gave me discounted goods. On my first trip I took whatever I thought would be necessary especially given the weather conditions: water coolers, matches, basic food, bedding, straw mats, and clothing. One donation came in the form of new suits. All of these were neatly packaged. This is one of the differences between this experience and that of the 2005 quake. People gave very generously but some of the donations were misguided and included things like sari blouses and clothing inappropriate for people from conservative areas. In this case, everything was neatly packaged and very thoughtfully put together.

I have to say that the people of Mardan amazed me by the way they opened up their doors wholeheartedly, and gave away food and accommodation. I think one of the reasons for this is the Frontier tradition of hospitality: the guest is the most important person. Even families who were not wealthy housed and fed the needy. It was quite overwhelming. Everybody was there to help, even the most ordinary policeman would go out of his way to guide us to find the IDPs.

On the television there were reports that there was no food and no facilities. However, I think that this was largely unjustified. Given the circumstances and the fact that the mass exodus began very suddenly, the situation was very well handled. In times like this, there are always examples of heroism as well as instances of corruption, and even the government camps were very well organized after the first few days. These were traumatic times and even in developed countries it isn’t possible to mobilize supplies for large numbers of people at short notice.

Thanks go to Fauzia and Ghazala Minallah and their group of friends, all of whom were actively involved in purchasing and donating goods; Farida Adil and her family who worked in Mardan; Fatima Hameed who runs Adal Trust along with three friends who include the journalist Naseem Zehra and the educationist Azme Ansari; and Sophiya Ali Khan. There are countless others who collected donations and housed people in the Rawalpindi-Islamabad area, one of them being Mrs. Nafisa Khattak, who housed over a hundred people in Melody Cinema, as she did after the South Asia Quake, and Mr. Azhar Saleem from Rawalpindi. Donations came in contrasting sizes, varying from two thousand rupees to two thousand dollars, and every contribution was welcomed.

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