PAKISTAN: Of Taliban and floods
NOWSHERA/JOHANNESBURG, 28 October 2010 (IRIN) - In early September 2010, the guns of four Pakistani police special commandos glinted in the afternoon sun as they walked past the rubble that had once been Yasmin’s home on the banks of the River Kabul in the northwestern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK).
Yasmin, a mother of five, who had lost her home to the flooded river in July 2010, gave them a quick look before resuming her work. The armed men were a reminder of the shadow cast by the Taliban in the province, which saw gun battles in the upper reaches of Swat Valley until the beginning of the year.
Taliban control of Swat District during part of 2009 led to a ban on education for women and girls there, who were forced into purdah, and international aid workers and foreign visitors in KPK are still required by the Pakistani government to move around with armed police escorts.
Yasmin and the women in her village of Peersabakh - unlike women in other parts of Nowshera District in southern KPK - do not observe purdah, and the Taliban were the last thing on her mind as she dug through the rubble of her home: Out flew a limbless plastic doll, the leg of a wooden stool, damp and soiled scraps of cloth. Yasmin muttered in Urdu: "Yahin hona chahiye kahin [It should be here somewhere]." She was looking for four of her five children’s birth certificates. Two of them are girls.
She wanted them at school as soon as it opened - back to a life with some semblance of normality, she explained, rather than have them wander among the mounds of rubble that dotted the banks of the River Kabul.
"I send our girls to school - I want them to study and become something," said Yasmin. Her husband, who had been a casual worker before the floods, has been without work for over a month. The water has receded but their lives "had stopped" and they were stuck in a tiny tent pitched on rubble.
In another part of the district, the wife of a shopkeeper, seated in her still damp house, explained in Pashto that her daughters did not go to school. "There is no need," her 10-year-old son, translated for her. "They only need to know housework." Her eight-year-old daughter giggled and tried to imitate her brother’s words in English.
That is the way it has always been. "The girls go to the madrasa to learn to read the Holy Koran."
The entire city of Nowshera had been engulfed by the floods, while the district - with more than 71,000 households affected, according to the UN - was one of the worst-hit in the country. "The poor, who had their homes along the river lost everything. The houses you see still standing in the town are those of the rich, who could afford better building materials," Yasmin explained in Urdu.
Militant influence, previously mainly in the province’s Swat Valley, has dwindled, said Ali Anan Qamar, the outgoing head of Nowshera District. "We have had no reports of any interference in our relief efforts. Their influence is felt more in the neighbouring tribal areas."
Ordinary Pakistanis tend to refer to the militants in general terms as "the trouble" or "those people". A resident remarked: "It is because of the trouble with these people [that] we are not getting help from `bahar mulk’ [foreign countries]."
Raza Ullah Jan of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in KPK said there were some areas where NGOs were reluctant to venture because of the security threat.
The militants are generally suspicious of any new activity in their area, said a doctor from a local medical NGO.
"But they are not that active here [in Nowshera District]," unlike in the neighbouring Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where a former colleague had been kidnapped in 2009, he said.
"They kidnapped him because they were deeply suspicious of the work we were doing. He managed to negotiate with them, asking them to monitor their work for three days, which they did and, seeing the work was helping the people, they let him go."
The policeman pointed towards hills less than 100km away and said: "That is where the nearest militant group is camped. The head of that group and I grew up together; we played cricket together. He would never hurt me but I can’t say what could happen to you… These people [militants] are from the community - it is just that their minds get changed radically."
Later that day at a meeting of NGOs at Qamar’s office, an international NGO complained about the government’s requirement that all international aid workers only visit the field if accompanied by police. "It affects our independence and neutrality," said the NGO representative. "How real is the threat?" she wondered aloud.
Officials replied they could not allow any foreign aid workers to take risks.
A month later, 26 October…
The militants have not surfaced. "There have not been any incidents," said Qamar who has since taken charge of neighbouring Peshawar District.
But the doctor from the local NGO said he had been asked not to put up banners of his organization in some areas. "Unfortunately the militants tend to link the term `NGO’ with foreign aid, so the best thing is to remain low-key at the moment."
Most families are still in tents or in camps, said Qamar on what was his last day as the administrative head of Nowshera, "but at least now they are getting the promised Rs 25,000 [US$291] - initial compensation from the government - and they are using that to help get back on their feet.”
But not all of them have got the money, said an aid worker. "The government cannot really afford it - you are looking at 20 million people affected across the country."
Qamar said his office was trying to help people like Yasmin by providing them with birth certificates based on testimonies from respected members of their community or locality. "I have 500-600 people queuing up for birth certificates at the office every day."
As of on 21 October at least 64 percent of the amount appealed for by the UN to help Pakistan to recover from its worst-ever floods - equivalent to more than $1.2 billion - had still not materialized.
Copyright © IRIN 2010
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
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