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Category: Articles, Ayaz Amir

Hope Among the Ruins

By Ayaz Amir

Trust the bureaucracy — especially the jewel in its crown, the revenue department — to make squalid whatever it touches. So no great wonder if at the World Food Programme (WFP) distribution point at Shah Mansoor in the Swabi district there should be scenes of despair and frustration, the marooned refugees, mainly from Buner, complaining of long waits and heartless revenue officials.

If there was any Stalinist justice around — and we do need a touch of Stalin in these trying times — Tehsildar Shah Qadir and Girdawar Wahid Shah (I would love for a Parisian street artist to do their portraits) should be undergoing serious interrogation at a local equivalent of the KGB’s Lubyanka Headquarters.

It was much the same at the Aurangabad WFP distribution point, a few miles beyond Swabi, refugees, tiredness writ clearly on their faces, complaining bitterly of having to wait for days to get their allotted rations. Although, to give the other point of view, Constable Ishtiaq Ali (No 889 as he was quick to point out when I asked him his name), a strapping young fellow on duty at the centre, said that many of the refugees were guilty of multiple registrations — the different members of a family registering not as one unit but under their several names, thus adding enormously to the burden on the distribution centres. The DCO Swabi could look into this muddle.

The sheer scale of the refugee problem can only be imagined, registered refugees representing only the very tip of the mountain. In the two large camps in Mardan — Sheikh Yasin and Sheikh Shahzad — there are about 18,000 refugees; in the two camps in Swabi — Yar Hussain and Shah Mansoor — another five thousand. But the total number of refugees who have sought refuge in Mardan division is about 600, 000. Where have the rest gone?

This is where the largeness of heart of the Pakistani nation comes into the spotlight. Just as during the devastating 2005 earthquake the response of both the government and the army was halting and slow to get started, while the response of the people all across the country was spectacular and incredible, this time too it is the response of the people of Swabi and Mardan which is simply amazing.

People have opened their hearths and homes to the refugees, feeding them and giving them shelter. If it were only up to the government or international relief agencies there would be Somalia-like mass starvation by now and perhaps food riots and lawlessness. But hand it to the people of Swabi and Mardan for taking the refugees to their bosom.

The stories of hospitality I heard in Swabi are too numerous to put down here. But this one is hard to resist. The first night when the first wave of refugees hit Swabi bazaar they were fed and looked after not by government officials or any local khans but by the chowkidars (watchmen) of the bazaar. Hotels refused to take any money. I was told of one joint in Swabi main chowk, ‘Three Star Paindakhail Hotel and Chapli Kabab Centre’, which sent word that all comers were welcome. Small tandoor-walas offered whatever they could. If the kingdom of heaven were ever to come down to earth — something not likely to happen, I am afraid—the chowkidars of Swabi bazaar would be crowned as kings.

How long this can last is another question. Most of the relief aid is likely to flow to the camps in Mardan and Swabi where all the attention is and where the media circus is parked. VIPs wishing to make a statement (and then quickly disappearing after having their pictures taken) will also visit these camps. So there won’t be a shortage of relief goods there. It is the distant villages that will soon need urgent help.

Relief could be targeted at specific villages. Instead of simply sending goods to the Mardan camps it might be a good idea to select target villages and direct relief efforts towards them. This would require some reconnaissance, a visit, say, to Swabi and Mardan, to get an idea of the likely target area. But it is not difficult.

In contrast to the difficulty of reaching the earthquake-hit areas of Mansehra and Azad Kashmir in October 2005, the Motorway provides unbelievably easy access to this latest disaster zone, with interchanges both at Swabi and Mardan. From Islamabad you can get there sooner, and with more ease, than the time it takes to drive up to Bhurban. From Lahore also it is possible to go up to Mardan and return the same day. So all those swept by abstract ideas of goodwill have an easy option of being something other than fierce sofa warriors. They can get into their cars and drive up to Swabi and Mardan and think it is a picnic they are going on. The Motorway indeed makes it a picnic.

But please carry something with you. Here’s a ration pack for a family for a week: atta 20 kilos; ghee 2.5 kilos; rice five kilos; daal channa two kilos; daal moong one kilo; sugar five kilos; and tea one packet. Carry as many of these, or send as many of these, as you can. Do this and be secure in the knowledge that you will have won the favour of the gods.

From where to get the right information? Avoid government offices like the plague. That is the golden rule. In Swabi a mine house of information is the local Al Khidmat office where, armed with maps and everything at his fingertips, sits former Jamaat-i-Islami MNA, Muhammad Usman Khan advocate (phone numbers: 0938-223000 and 0300-9088875).

Al Khidmat is the relief arm of the Jamaat-i-Islami and I have to confess that I take its name with a heavy heart because I am not programmed to say anything nice or kind about the Jamaat. But prejudice apart, it is difficult to close one’s eyes to the splendid work Al Khidmat is doing in Swabi and Mardan. More power to its efforts.

Buner district is oblong-shaped and its southern tip juts into Swabi. The gateway to Buner is the small town (also a thana) of Totalai. When refugees started streaming from Buner on their way southward it was through Totalai that they had to pass. Al Khidmat had a reception camp there but another camp which did tremendous work was set up by a local political activist, Liaquat Ali Khan, and his brother, the Union Council Nazim, Sajjad Ali, both affiliated to — and here’s what bowled me over completely — the PML-Q. Lending them financial help was PML-Q MNA, Amir Maqam, whose constituency is not Buner but Shangla, further up north. Amir Muqam has given Rs200,000 and is set to give, as I was told, another Rs800,000.

Amir Maqam was a Musharraf acolyte and remains an unrepentant Musharraf apologist, in my mind a grave sin. But what mortal is entitled to pass judgment on what is right and wrong? For this act of his, and of which I heard in Totalai myself, Amir Maqam enters the ranks of political knighthood, his past sins erased.

Another organisation whose work you can see and feel in those areas is the UK-based Ummah Welfare Trust (UWT). Both in Swabi and the two camps in Mardan UWT is running medical camps with qualified doctors providing medical assistance. It is also providing food. For the Mardan camps I was told by Muhammad Enayatullah, who runs UWT operations in Pakistan, the Trust had set aside a million pounds sterling.

The Trust is headed by seven people from different countries. Its Pakistani representative is the Manchester-based Maulana Muhammad Idrees, originally from Topi Mardan. His UK number is 00447791307484. All power to the Ummah Welfare Trust. If only most maulanas were like Maulana Idrees, Pakistan’s troubles would ease.

There is no doubt that the operation in Buner was hastily undertaken. With the right preparations much of the present misery and disorder we are seeing could have been avoided. Even now the operation in Buner is confined to the northern-most tip of the district, the Pir Baba area, but such was the terror generated by the onset of the operation — and, let us not forget, such was the terror of the Taliban — that areas far removed from the fighting line have been evacuated. These represent the wages of haste and pressure from Washington. We were quick to sign that piece of folly that went by the name of the Swat accord. And we were quick to start hostilities once the accord unravelled.

The army has committed many mistakes. It has been guilty of gross blunders. Even now the operation could be conducted better. But the basic premise remains that there was no alternative to taking on the Taliban. They were a threat to the state. People who still think otherwise should take the trouble of visiting Buner and seeing things for themselves.

Now the most pressing national task is to back the army and ease the pain of the refugees, and — this being very important — undertake measures to reduce the pain of our brothers and sisters in Balochistan. There is no point in fighting for Swat if we are eventually to lose Balochistan.

Even so, one thing should be clear from the response of the Pakhtun people to the plight of the people of Dir, Buner and Swat. Pakistan is not about to dissolve or melt down any time soon. Its government may be in a shambles and it may not have the leadership that the times require. But the spirit of its great people, and this is what ultimately matters, remains alive and well.

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