The military operation in the north of Pakistan has left over three million people homeless and the disillusionment and anger keeps mounting for the 'Internally Displaced People' (IDPs), who have left their homes, belongings and often family members behind.
Zahir Shah comes from a small village called Dankara in the Swat Valley. He is a stout man, with a receding hairline, and a full beard. But he seems weak now, and his eyes look tired. Primarily known for its picturesque beauty and cool climate, Swat used to be a peaceful area where people from different religions co existed. But terror and mayhem seem to taken over the region now. Shah sits squarely and begins to narrate his own personal loss in the face of growing militancy, that has forced millions like him to leave their homes.
He used to live with his 28-member family on a land where they grew crops to sustain themselves. Two years back the Taliban kidnapped his younger brother who would have now been 19. Initially Shah moved his family to Mardan where he got a house on rent for Rs 3,000 ($36.40). The family was used to living in the open Swat area and felt the need to move again. They moved back to Swat where they resumed working on the field. "Two years ago there was a curfew, but the Taliban then had not taken over the whole area then... Over the course of the next few months they completely took over Swat, though," Shah said.
His family and he had to move again, but this time they moved to Buner where they saw no traces of militancy. Schools were still functioning, hospitals were nearby and they were able to get some land on lease to start growing their crops. But it wasn't long till the militants came to Buner. "They came in to Buner and started fighting and literally slaughtering people. We left everything. Our clothes, our crops, everything. We just ran out of our houses," he said. His entire family walked back to district of Mardan. Refusing to live in a tent because it was below their dignity and extremely uncomfortable, the family lived in a mud house that Shah says even had scorpions and snakes around.
The Pahstun culture is based on family honor, self-respect and conservatism. Several people from Swat have gone from living good stable lives to struggling for their daily survival. The registration and distribution of ration (basic food and health supplies) has been a mortifying experience for many. The long lines that ensue the process are often pointless. Many don't have their identification cards on them since they had to flee their homes and now they can't get ration because they don't have ID cards.
The distribution of food is another up hill battle. With not enough distributors, the lines are extremely long and unwieldy. Often sacks of un-milled seeds are given out. "Once we get the seeds we have to find a way of getting to a mill. We pay for the transport back and forth, and by the time we get to our place, an entire day has been wasted," Shah said. The climate has been another challenge. Swat residents are used to very cool temperatures and are now living without electricity in temperatures over 90 degrees.
Not dressed for the weather, the women are often seen asking for clothing that would allow them to beat the heat. These women dress conservatively and don't know what to do with the t-shirts and pants they are being given. Instead they ask for a simple cotton shalwaar kameez with a dupatta (the traditional Pakistani 3-piece attire).
Shah says that only 10 percent of the homeless are living in camps. Most didn't go to the tents because it was too hot or because there simply wasn't enough room to accommodate all those who had to flee. The rest, he says, are living in villages, or staying at family friends homes.
As a result only 10 percent of the IDPs are even receiving regular donations from the government. "The homeless people outside the camps are being totally ignored," he said, slightly frustrated.
While President Zardari announced cash giveaways of Rs 25,000 per family (a little over $300), that hasn't seemed enough for most people. "When we heard this, I remember a well to do man wondered how a man, who ran an entire market in Swat, could survive on that. He had put so much money into his business, and our president was offering peanuts. That man just said 'Keep your money, what the hell am I going to do with this!,'" Shah said.
The idea of returning home seems just as dismal. Most houses have been looted and burned down. "They already took everything from our houses, why are they burning down these buildings now? These people are outsiders. They speak foreign languages and want to ruin the name of Islam. They want to bring Pakistan down. So many of them have been caught dead, and none of them even have beards. They don't even look Pakistani," Shah said.
Even though the homeless wish the military well, they are fearful of their return to Swat. Rebuilding houses that have existed for generations seems like a heart wrenching task. "The government needs to build us schools again. Hospitals. Factories to give jobs to our youth. Right now we are living in hell, how can 50 people live in one room?" Shah said. "The government keeps giving us hope that everything will happen soon, but what about the houses that have been burned down. They can't even provide us a tent, how will they make our houses? What are we expected to go back to?"
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