Pakistan + 1 more

Pakistan: Protect people now

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Refugees International hosted its eighth annual Washington Circle event, Protect People First: Eyewitness Reports from Afghanistan and Pakistan, last Friday in front of a captivated Georgetown audience with one message --- make civilians the priority.

The event featured Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author of The Forever War, Dexter Filkins, who shared his photos and stories collected from Afghanistan and Pakistan during the course of a decade serving as the foreign correspondent there for The New York Times. Having just returned days before from Afghanistan, Dexter spoke alongside RI's Acting President Joel Charny, and RI Advocate Patrick Duplat who commented on the most recent of the three RI missions he has led to the region this year. The event, last in RIs 30th Anniversary year, was generously hosted by Cathy Brentzel, and attended by Ambassador Pekka Lintu of Finland and his wife Laurel Colless, as well as RI Board members and supporters.

Filkins quickly won over the room as he spoke to a long sequence of photos with an almost breezy style but remarkable candor. He described the many refugee camps he's visited over the years as remarkably the same. He talked of Afghanistan as a place straight out of the Old Testament, pointing, in one typical photo, to the weapons carried by local men as the only signs of modernity. He described for the audience how decades of war, interrupted only by the brutal order imposed by the Taliban, had left the deteriorated society his photographer captured in shot after shot of suffering and resilience. And in response to a question from the audience, he recalled the oppressiveness of Taliban domination particularly on the lives of women and girls, and insisted on the value of international efforts since 2001 in improving girls' educational opportunities.

Patrick recounted his recent mission to the Jalozai camp outside of Peshawar, which had housed some of the two million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. He pointed out the irony of the Pakistani government having closed down the camp, forcing out the Afghan refugees, and months later having to rebuild it for the wave of internally displaced Pakistanis fleeing the fighting in the Swat valley. He also described the more recent displacement of up to 2 million men, women and children who have fled their homes in winter to escape the still ongoing clashes between militants and their governments military forces in South Waziristan.

Both Joel and Patrick urged the audience to continue to pressure the U.S. government to support the UN humanitarian appeal for 2010, which will help provide basic necessities like food and shelter for displaced families in Pakistans northwest. Until they can go home, we must do all that we can to provide them with humanitarian assistance and personal dignity. Above all else, we must protect the Pakistani people first.