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The displaced vs the well placed people of Pakistan

“The twins were born as the mother desperately struggled with the pangs of pain, the sound of  falling artillery shells ,  the suffocation of gun powder  and the stench of decaying dead bodies.  By the time it was morning, the family realized that one of the two babies ,  had not survived the ordeal of childbirth.  The one who had said  good bye to life, shared the same bed with the one who was still clinging to it. There was no way that a burial could be held in a curfew.   Suddenly there were frantic announcements for a 2 hour curfew break asking  the residents  to vacate  the valley as soon as possible.   The family hurriedly  packed their humble belongings, picked up the new born and dashed out of their home into one of the many cramped  trucks headed towards Mardan. It was  some where close to  Dargai, that the unfortunate mother realised that she was carrying the dead child, while the living one  had been left behind.”  This heart breaking  story was narrated by a doctor who treated  this shattered family at Sahakot.  This may just be one glimpse of the untold trauma faced by the millions of  fleeing residents of Swat. Little did they know that  their suffering and agony would appear diminutive  in comparison to what lay ahead in the days to come.

The  Rangmaala  relief camp located at the very top of Malakand, close to the borders of Swat and Buner, provides the first opportunity  that a displaced family can avail as a shelter.  The camp set up by the Red Crescent Society of Pakistan  houses 4600 persons (702 families) and is by far  the most well organized refugee camp. The government has provided various support services, including electricity and cooked food.   Each family has received a tent, a  mat,  a cooler,  a fan, a bucket, a kitchen set and a hygiene set. There are common toilets, washing area and a dispensary. From the point of view of the organizers, they have provided all that was needed to make Rangmaala a model camp. There should be no further cause for a complaint.  This is the first conceptual mistake made in a relief process, when people become numbers and the relief goods become check-lists.  None of the organizers had actually spent  even one day in a tent, lined up for food or visited the toilet even once to get a personal experience of  what it was like to live in a camp.  The temperature inside the tents where the women remain motionlessly  seated like toasts in an oven was at least 10 degrees higher than outside.   People and buckets queued up three times a day to surrender their dignity in return for a few mugs  of the yellow liquid called ‘daal’ and the toilets’ hygiene permitted  visits only in situations of  unbearable duress.

So despite  enough relief goods and highly committed volunteers, the life in the best relief camp of Pakistan was no better than a torture cell. Devoid of all humanity, dignity and purpose, it had overnight transformed thousands of perfectly respected citizens into the profession of begging three times a day.

One assumed that we had learnt our lesson and that an effective   National Disaster Management Authority would have been  established after the 2005 earthquake. Four years down the road, there was no such organistaion and  we were once again trying to re-invent the relief management wheel through ad-hoc solutions.  We suffered exactly the same set and the same sequence of problems and responded with the same set of inadequacies as we did in the 2005 earthquake. Except for the very small percentage who is in relief camps, we  have no information of exactly how many and which families, men, women and children came down the mountains and took shelter in which city, school, building or the ‘hujra’ of a friend or relative. To use such approximations as “between 2.5 and 3.5 million refugees” is a very callous and  bureaucratic expression of our respect for people and our knowledge of arithmetic.

The government could not count the 7000 ghost schools and had to take a world bank loan to do just that for the province of Sindh.  Thus the counting and registration of the  refugees,  a task just about 4000 times more colossal needed far more serious and intelligent inputs.  The government needs to divide the entire spread of refugees into distinct geographical zones,  put together a team of about 1000 persons (with lap tops), who could  spread  themselves into  each zone , registering names of each family head, his NIC number, the number of men, women and children in each household and the exact name of the location where the family is sheltered.(school, hujra, building, host family, camp etc.)

The government at this time does not have the character  or the competence to efficiently and justly manage a crisis of such large dimensions.  It could thus decide to do only what it really can.   It could focus its  limited management expertise to  improving the few already established relief camps. All other families (outside the relief camps),  could simply be paid  a monthly cash amount, given to each head of the family.  Additionally the government could provide for  free doctors, dispensaries, make shift schooling and arrangement  for water and sanitation on community basis. This would allow the families to buy what they really need and rid the government of the impossible task of catering to the complicated logistics of the relief goods.

The crisis would not seem as large, if the ruling elite was to show visible signs of sharing, austerity and cutting down of its own obscenely lavish lifestyle.  The government ministers  who take a Rs.40,000 per hour taxi ride and   live in a Rs.400,000 per night hotel find it perfectly normal to declare  a compensation of  Rs.25,000 to each displaced  family to rebuild its entire life.  Little do they know that this may just be the much needed invitation for the people to rise and get rid of the ruling classes that insist on clinging to a system of injustice, exploitation and inequity.


Naeem Sadiq

Dawn June 2005