Caught in Pakistan's crossfire


PESHAWAR, Pakistan — The day is closing in Jellozai and children run along the narrow dusty rows of UNICEF-stamped tents trying to squeeze a little more play time out of the dying evening. Some 43,000 people live in this refugee camp just outside of Peshawar, after fleeing violence in the tribal regions not far from here.

Beginning last summer, intensified clashes between Taliban militants and the Pakistani military — as well as U.S. drone attacks — have created chaos in the ungoverned tribal belt between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

As civilians find themselves caught between Taliban violence and Pakistan and American military strikes, 600,000 refugees have fled to the relative safety of camps like this one, or taken refuge with family members living in Pakistan’s urban centers.

Tahseen Ullah Khan, Chief Coordinator of the National Resource & Development Foundation, a Peshawar-based nonprofit, has become sadly familiar with the realities of that human toll as he’s begun to gather data about civilian causalities, injuries and displacement in northwestern Pakistan.

“When the military comes into these areas, they bring the war machine,” Khan says over an avalanche of grizzly photos and handwritten testimonials of death and displacement spilling over the top of his desk, “And everything is destroyed behind it.”

One way to understand that destruction is to visit Jellozai, Pakistan’s largest camp for internally displaced people. Here 7,000 families are housed in less than one square mile — though there are plans to expand the camp again — amidst the recent mud and clay ruins of the Afghan refugee camp that stood here until just one year ago.

“I come from Bajaur Agency,” says Pervez, a young man who has spent seven months in Jellozai — largely populated with refugees from Bajaur.

“There is so much violence, people are shooting and being slaughtered,” he shouts over a crowd of men and boys, dressed in the traditional long vests and wool caps of Pashtuns, who have gathered in the main road leading into the camp.

“My parents were injured in Bajaur,” he continues, explaining that people in the area he fled have become victims of fighting between the military and the militants.

“I brought them to Islamabad and they died there, they were old people in their sixties.”

Stories like this are common throughout the eleven camps that have recently sprung up to address the flow of refugees from The Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the Swat Valley.

“People talk about fleeing, they talk about being caught in the crossfire between militants and government forces,” says Ariane Rummery, Information Officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Pakistan, “then going back to see that their houses have since been knocked down.”

Many in Jellozai seem upset by the conditions in the camp, citing a lack of proper drainage, food, education and activities and an inability to live their traditional cultural practices due to crowding and cramped quarters.

“Naturally this is a distressing situation for people to be in this these camps for long periods of time,” says Rummery, mentioning a government program to improve drainage in Jellozai as well as UNHCR’s practice of providing white tarp “purdah walls” around family compounds in the camp to help with privacy, “There are ongoing difficulties and we try to address them as best we can.”

Most of the recently internally displaced people in Pakistan are not living in camps; 85 percent of those who have been registered by UNHCR are either renting accommodations or staying with relatives. An estimated 82,000 of those living outside of camps are thought to be in Pakistan’s urban centers—Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi—where they may receive less than a warm welcome.

People in Jellozai are aware that they are perceived as a dangerous refugee community, sharing the same culture and regions as some Taliban militants, but are offended at the suggestion.

"If we were the terrorists, would we be here [in this camp]?” asks Pervez. “We are suffering at the hands of both the government and the militants; we are not the ones who are terrorists."

Though violence and instability in the northern tribal areas are on the rise, UNHCR hopes that Pervez and other displaced people like him will be able to return home within a year, though the nearby ruins of a freshly demolished Afghan refugee camp built in the eighties during the Russian-Afghan war speak ominously of the longevity of conflict and displacement in this region.

One teenager seemed to have that on his mind as he rushed up to the crowd asking if it was possible to apply to go to America, “I want to go wherever I can have opportunities,” he said bitterly gesturing to the camp behind him, “I don’t know where they are but I want to go there.”

More Dispatches on Pakistan:

Vulnerable supply lines put US mission at risk

Opinion: Taliban poised to "take" Pakistan

Cut off at the Khyber Pass