"US pledges aid as Swat crisis grows
By Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad, James Lamont in New Delhi and Daniel Dombey in Washington
Published: May 19 2009 16:52 | Last updated: May 19 2009 18:38
The US said on Tuesday that it was providing $110m in emergency assistance to Pakistan as international aid agencies warned that the scale of displacement from military action in the Swat Valley threatened to rival that caused by the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
The comparisons have been sparked by comments by the UN refugee agency that fighting between Pakistan’s military and Taliban militants is uprooting people faster than any other conflict since the slaughter of ethnic Tutsis in the central African country 15 years ago.
An estimated 1.5m-2m people are now believed to have been displaced in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province as the army confronts Islamist militants in a new offensive.
“It has been a long time since there has been a displacement this big,” said Ron Redmond, the UNHCR’s spokesman, speaking to reporters in Geneva. “It could go back to Rwanda…It’s an enormous number of people.”
To escape the killing in Rwanda about 800,000 people crossed into the then Zaire in four days in July 1994. A month later about 2.1m refugees had fled the country.
“The current emergency is on the scale of the mass displacement we saw during the disastrous wars in Rwanda and Bosnia, and much more funding is required to cope with the influx,” said Mike Young, the International Rescue Committee’s Pakistan country representative.
He said hundreds of thousands of civilians were trapped in the conflict zone as close as 120km from Islamabad, and warned that insufficient emergency resources and soaring summer temperatures could lead to violence breaking out among the refugee population.
Relief agencies are warning that the number of refugees in Pakistan is not likely to stabilise while fighting continues. They say the number is rising at an alarming pace, and have received reports of considerable casualties of militants and civilians in Swat’s main town of Mingora.
Zahid Mahmood, Programme Coordinator of Care International in Islamabad, said the number of refugees could swell in the coming weeks to as many as 3m people. He said that in spite of reports of some refugees returning to their homes much of the area remained sealed off by the military and was inaccessible to relief agencies.
“It’s impossible to go into the area. There is a high level of threat,” he said.
The US money will primarily go towards food staples, tents and an emergency response centre. ” President Obama is determined to match our words with our actions, because Pakistan’s government is leading the fight against extremists that threaten the future of their country and our collective security,” said Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State.
Sarah Crowe, Unicef’s regional chief of communications, said relief camps in Pakistan were now the biggest in the world exceeding those of Sri Lanka and Darfur in Sudan. Many refugees have chosen to stay with under-resourced families in the neighbouring area rather than go to camps.
She said that while in Rwanda the refugee crisis had been concentrated in a few areas, the Pakistan crisis was far more dispersed and was taking place in a more “porous” environment.
“The civilian population is getting it from all sides. From the militants, from the counter-insurgency operation and from sectarian conflict. It’s a triple whammy for them,” she said.
Many are fearful that military action spreading to other areas, like the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Waziristan, will displace yet more people.
“This is the biggest internal displacement in Pakistan’s history. If they (the army) go fighting in other areas there will be a bigger outflow of displaced people,” said Ian Bray at Oxfam, the UK-based relief agency.
Refugees face harsh conditions in the summer heat and with barely enough to provide basic needs.
“It is a terrible situation on the ground. There are literally thousands of families stranded outside camps because there is not enough capacity and these people are not getting any assistance,” said Ghazala Minallah, a civil society campaigner speaking from the refugee centre of Mardan.
“We see officials visiting relief camps and there is a lot of coverage on the media, but the reality is that this is all an eyewash. These displaced people have absolutely nothing”.
One UN official warned that conditions were deteriorating very rapidly. “The longer this war continues, the greater will be the risk to the lives of the IDPs (Internally displaced people). So far, it is just not clear how long this conflict will last”.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009"