One has to wonder if Pakistan's democracy will survive. And remember, Pakistan is a nuclear power.
Pakistani Push in Tribal Areas Triggers a Flood of Refugees
By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 27, 2008; A08
NOWSHERA, Pakistan -- Lal Bahadur walked down from the mountains about two weeks ago. With his back to Afghanistan and his wife and five children alongside, he descended steep inclines through the northern edge of Pakistan's tribal areas as artillery fire boomed around them. It was nearly a full day before the family found a place to rest. By the time they reached the district of Nawagai, the price of a ride to safety in the nearby city of Peshawar had already increased 10-fold.
When they arrived in Peshawar from the volatile tribal area of Bajaur, Bahadur found that apartment rents in the city had almost tripled, putting them well beyond his reach. So the family came here to this refugee camp about 45 miles east of Peshawar, where nearly 1,000 residents of Bajaur have recently sought shelter in the wake of a massive military offensive against Taliban insurgents.
An estimated 200,000 people from the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan have been displaced since the Pakistani army launched the Bajaur operation early this month in response to growing U.S. pressure to take action against the Taliban in the region, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Local officials say the flood of refugees into northwestern and central Pakistan has overwhelmed cities such as Peshawar. And as the army began to push into the tribal area of Kurram last week, government officials in cities as far away as Karachi were bracing for more waves of people.
The political and economic fallout from Pakistan's push against the Taliban and al-Qaeda has widened into a major humanitarian crisis, analysts and local officials here say. Yet a week after the resignation of President Pervez Musharraf, the government has announced no specific plans to address the refugee problem in the border regions, which now appears to be spilling over into the rest of the country.
Last week, the crisis grew so acute that Pascal Cuttat, head of the Red Cross in Pakistan, called urgently for shelter, medical treatment and food for Bajaur refugees. The aid agency estimates that the military operations in Bajaur and neighboring tribal areas have driven about 14,000 people westward across the border into the troubled Afghan province of Konar, where last month nine U.S. soldiers were killed in a well-coordinated Taliban-led attack.
In Peshawar, a city of more than 3 million, the waves of new arrivals have brought with them numerous problems. Last week, migrants held several protests in the city over the Bajaur offensive and the lack of government assistance. Peshawar's 5,000 police officers have struggled to contain the violence stemming from the protests and from clashes between refugees and local residents. And the influx of people has driven up prices for basic goods across the city, officials said.
"All around Peshawar, on every side, the situation is volatile because of the people coming from Bajaur, Bara, Dera Adam Khel and the people from Swat and Waziristan," said Ghulam Ali, the mayor. "All of this is impacting the infrastructure in Peshawar. The schools, the health system -- everything is overloaded."
Bahadur, 40, said he had little choice but to leave Bajaur. Pakistani troops have been pounding the area with bombs dropped from helicopter gunships and fighter jets since Aug. 10. He and dozens of refugees at the camp said they received no warning of the operation. "We had no idea it was going to happen. The government didn't tell us anything, and we didn't see them anywhere," Bahadur said.
Pakistani army officials have said that dozens of Islamist insurgents have been killed in the Bajaur operation. Little, however, has officially been said about the civilian toll. Local news reports suggest more than 200 people have been killed.
Meanwhile, the refugees at the camp in Nowshera wait and wonder about the fate of those they left behind, subsisting on two meals a day of beans and bread. Their own survival is not assured: An outbreak of cholera and typhoid fever has already killed two young girls here.
Subhan Ullah, the camp director, acknowledged that conditions are far from optimal and that the army's push into other tribal areas near Bajaur would probably increase the challenge for the government. Ullah said he is looking for a larger piece of land to accommodate the anticipated surge in numbers.
"We are doing what we can to support the people here," he said.
The government has set up several camps for tribal area refugees across the country. But as in the camp in Nowshera, abysmal conditions and outbreaks of disease have driven many to seek shelter elsewhere. In Rawalpindi, the garrison city near Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, hundreds of refugees set up camp in several parks this month. Last week, Rawalpindi police moved to disperse the camps.
Bahadur and several others at Nowshera said they are also considering leaving soon. It will almost certainly be months before he sees his home again, Bahadur acknowledged, but he said it is all he knows.
"We want to go back as soon as possible," he said. "We want to go home."