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IDPs: Home away from home, or is it?

IDPs: Home away from home, or is it?

The displaced people were kept in various camps. Life in these camps is not easy as there are not many facilities there, yet they have to live there till they are able to go back to their homes.

One such camp is the Durrani camp in Kurram Agency in Federally Administered Tribal Area (Fata). To say that it is a wretched place is no exaggeration. Cold, dark and coated in thick mud, the camp is situated at the foot of breath-taking mountains, yet it is a place that symbolises the ugly reality of the country’s battle against militants. A battle that continues to uproot, destroy and devastate lives. 

Over the past six years, the people now living at the Durrani camp, like hundreds and thousands of people across north-western Pakistan, were forced to flee for their lives due to the lethal mix of terrorism, sectarian killings and army operations launched to remove extremists from Pakistan’s soil.

Between 2009 and 2014, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and other militant groups waged a war in the region triggering a massive movement of people, a displacement crisis, forcing almost one million people to run for their lives. 

Over the past six years, the numbers of Pakistanis made homeless by relentless violence has continued to swell. 

As the government implements a plan to return displaced people from Wazaristan and the tribal areas back to their villages, many residents of Durrani camp say they feel betrayed and forgotten as they continue to languish in tents and under the open sky in their own homeland. 

A 75-year-old man wearing broken shoes and a flimsy shalwar kameez offering him no protection against the elements recalls how he reached the camp. “The Taliban came and took everything; they stole from us and told us we had to leave our homes. They took everything and we knew that they would kill us, so we left. My family and I walked for two days and slept on the road. If they knew that I was talking like this, they would kill me,” he says. With a startled look on his face, he raises his hand to his throat and runs a finger across it. “This is how they would kill me,” his gestures at his throat, showing how it would be slit. 

Durrani is home to more than 2,000 people, the majority of whom are women and children. The exhausted and increasingly desperate inhabitants have been playing a long wait and see game, not knowing if they will ever be able to return to their villages, homes and lives. 

They’ve survived bitter winters and long summers with no electricity, flimsy tents, limited water and food rations. Many say they have nothing to return to and fear what their futures hold. 

It is the women of Durrani camp who have carried the greatest burdens over the years, struggling to keep their families together, scrambling to find what they can to feed their children. 

Asia Bibi, 26, is the mother of five children; she has been living in the camp for the past four years. “I remember so clearly when I left my village. The children were scared; I remember their screaming. We walked for days to reach here. We ran out of food and slept on the side of the road. I want to stay here — I am too scared to return to my village, I don’t know what is left there. We are living here in the camp, just surviving. When it rains, everything is covered in mud. There is no hot water, it’s hard to keep clean and especially hard to keep the children clean in the winter when it’s so cold. Still, I prefer to stay here with my children, at least I know what to expect here. But I don’t have the option to decide.”

Asia points to some potatoes in her tent and says she tries to feed her children as best as she can but it’s hard to live off the rations. “I cook for the children, I want them to eat hot food, but sometimes I don’t have firewood and nobody to help me get some. My husband is old so I have to take care of the children by myself.” 

Women talk over each other, rushing to tell their stories, their eyes plead and their bodies shiver, the hazy winter sun offers little warmth. 

There are children everywhere. They peep out of tents, they run barefoot outside in the mud, and they sit quietly by themselves in the dark unlit tents. Small babies are carried by children and adults alike. 

Most of the children are without shoes and socks or warm clothes to protect them from the weather, they look pale and withdrawn.

Asia’s eldest son, Abdullah, stands near the tent that he calls home. His arms are folded, his head raised. He is defiant; his body language is that of a boxer getting ready for a fight. Abdullah is eight years old and has faced many fights already; he lost his childhood a long time ago. He was four years old when he escaped the extremists attacking his village and arrived in Durrani camp.

In the tent, he gathers one of his prized possessions, his school bag, and empties the contents on the ground. His eyes flicker as he pores over his books. The boy’s steely gaze dissolves as his face opens up and he relaxes, he looks like a child again. 

His mother looks on proudly, “My children are clever, they’re always excited to go to school and there is a school here which they attend. I want them to have the chance to read and write, the chance I didn’t have.”

A few kilometres away from the camp in Sadda, groups of women and children are huddled in the wards and corridors of the hospital. There are three women and children to a hospital bed in some of the wards. 

The hospital, run by Medicines Sans Frontieres, Doctors Without Borders, provides free medical treatment to the people of Kurram Agency. Many of the patients in the hospital are from Durrani camp.

Children and babies are being treated for measles, skin conditions, leishmaniasis; low birth weight and respiratory infections. People travel for hours to arrive at the hospital from as far as Waziristan and Tirah Valley. 

The hospital offers an insight into how the people of Fata have been surviving for decades without proper health facilities or infrastructure, their lives blighted by extreme poverty and violence.

It is also a place where the persecuted meet, share their lives and work together. Sunnis, Shias and Christians are present amongst the patients and medical staff. They live together and share the same realities, fears and hopes. 

One of the female health workers, Mary, is especially proud of the hospital’s ability to act as a neutral space. “I’m a Christian and from this region. I’m proud of who I am. I can tell you that I have faced no problems working here as a Christian, this is my home and I am proud to work here. I see patients who come from as far as Tirah Valley and even Afghanistan. These people are poor, they are kind and decent, and we are here to serve our patients.”

Mary continues, “We, women, faced lost of barriers and restrictions. At the height of the violence a few years ago, we were warned to stay in our homes by the militants, threatened and told not to leave our homes. Yet we carried on working because we are health workers and it’s our duty to care for our patients. I am thankful to my family for supporting me and enabling me to continue.”

Women health workers from across Pakistan are present at the hospital. Most didn’t want to be identified or named because they fear they could be targeted by extremists; even though there is an uneasy calm in the area, violence has increased over the past few months. 

One woman health worker returns to her family home twice a year. “It takes me two days to return to my region. I’m the only person from my family who has ever travelled to this part of Pakistan. My family worry about my safety but I want to build a future for myself and help people. It’s not easy to work in this region as a woman but I won’t give up.”

Mussarat, a nurse from Kurram Agency, describes how she received written threats from militants telling her to stay at home and not work, otherwise she would be targeted and killed. “It was at the height of the sectarian killings a few years ago, but I am still on alert and know that I could be killed. I would wake up in the morning and wonder if they had left any threats for me. The militants know where I live; they know where all of us live. My relatives have been killed by terrorists in Peshawar and other parts of Pakistan because of our religious identity. I know what the risks are, we live with them every day but never once did I ever think about locking myself up in my house and giving up on working as a nurse and taking care of women’s health. I told my husband, father and brothers, if I do that, if I hide away, I am giving in to the extremists and I won’t ever do that.”

Shaista Aziz is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad and tweets at @shaistaAziz

Sa’adia Khan is a freelance photographer based in Islamabad and tweets at @IM_SaadiaKhan

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, April 19th, 2015

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