Pakistan

The IRC aids thousands of people fleeing fighting in Pakistan's South Waziristan

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Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan 21 Dec 2009 - More than two months after the Pakistani military launched an offensive in the Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan, humanitarian aid organizations are only now gaining access to the estimated 430,000 people who have fled the fighting in the region. An earlier military offensive centered in the Swat Valley and surrounding areas uprooted some four million people and triggered a major humanitarian crisis.

Now the International Rescue Committee, in partnership with a local Pakistani organization, has launched an effort to deliver medical services to some 27,000 people who fled the fighting in South Waziristan for the nearby district of Dera Ismail Khan. Most of the displaced are camped out in the compounds of host families in what resembles mini-camps. In these settlements the IRC is also installing water pipes, water tanks and latrines, and is training local government officials in hygiene promotion. In addition, the IRC is working to ensure that the often overlooked needs of widows, the elderly and the disabled are met.

Mike Young, the IRC country representative in Pakistan, said that a recent IRC mission to assess the needs of displaced people in Dera Ismail Khan-where the majority of those who have fled South Waziristan are now living-showed that people lacked adequate food, shelter and access to medical care and that displaced people are not receiving adequate information from the Pakistani government about where to get food, shelter and other assistance.

"People who have been displaced by the fighting are not living in organized camps, but are scattered across three districts," Young said. "Aid groups have limited access to these areas. As a result, displaced people are in desperate need of shelter, supplies and medical services."

Meanwhile, the Pakistani military has blocked off all major exit routes from South Waziristan in an effort to seal its borders and screen for Taliban militants. Some witnesses who have fled the conflict zone report that the cost of transport out of South Waziristan is prohibitively expensive. As a result, Young said, as many as 100,000 people remain trapped and many have been forced to carry their belongings on their backs and escape by foot through treacherous mountainous terrain.

Pakistani civilian and military officials have indicated that they will give the okay for displaced people to return to South Waziristan as early as next March. But many displaced Pakistanis are deeply concerned about the lack of security in their home communities. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of people are far from home and facing worsening winter conditions. To endure the cold weather months ahead, they will need firewood, winterized tents, clothing and food rations.

While the Pakistan army has captured a string of Taliban strongholds in South Waziristan, many militants are believed to have fled to other northwestern regions along the border with Afghanistan including the tribal areas of North Waziristan, Kurram and Orakzai. Fighting in these regions has triggered additional displacement causing camps to swell once again and straining overburdened assistance systems.

"Since the summer, over one and a half million displaced Pakistanis have returned to their homes," Young said. "At the same time an equal number of people will remain displaced during Pakistan's harsh winter. It's a relentless humanitarian crisis -as soon as we respond to one set of urgent needs, conflict erupts elsewhere in the country."

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