Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Children pay the price in Pakistan

The fighting in Pakistan’s north-west region has displaced between 2.5 million and 3.5 million people. Which amounts to one of the largest population movements in recent history. While more than 235,000 people are in camps, the remainder are living in the homes of relatives and friends away from the areas of violence – and nearly half of these are children who are among those most vulnerable to congested living conditions and poor sanitation facilities.

Support networks for those displaced are near their breaking point, with families facing huge challenges such as food shortages, health problems, and lack of clean water. Host families are struggling to maintain those who are staying with them.

Jahangir Khan, 15, fled his home with his mother and five younger brothers and sisters. His father stayed behind to protect their house in southeast Swat.

“The road was blocked due to the fighting, so we had to take a mountain trail to escape safely,” Jahangir recalled. “We walked for two days before we could get a van to reach my uncle’s house, where we stayed for a few days, but we had to leave because of overcrowding.”

Jahangir now lives in a cave with his family and is being supported by his uncle Taj Maluk.

The support being provided to Jahangir’s family is placing financial strain on his uncle, who is hosting ten other families at his home. He only earns the equivalent 50 dollars (CHF 54.33) a month as a farm worker, an amount that barely supports his own family of 10.

“It’s becoming more and more difficult for me to support these people. I have already sold a cow to get cash”, said 40-year-old Taj.

Jahangir now worries about his father. “It has been ten days since I saw my father,” he said, “I don’t know whether he is okay or not.”

Muhammad Zubair, 13, has not been as lucky as Jahangir. He and his family are living in an abandoned poultry farm that was cleaned and made available by villagers in Ichrian village in Mansehra district east of Swat, in an area free of fighting. (Photo right: Muhammad Zubair and his friends sit outside their living place in village Ichrian of Mansehra.)

Zubair, a student of Quran in a local Madrassah in Mingora, the capital of Swat, had to suspend his studies and move to a safer place along with his family when the fighting escalated.

“I miss my home and my friends. I don’t like living here. My friends and I used to play cricket and other sports. Life was fun,” Zubair said.

It is cold in this poultry farm at night, and sometimes the stench of dead chickens in the area from neighbouring poultry farms is overpowering.

There are around 500 people living at this facility and locals are doing their best to support them. But much more needs to be done to help these families live in a more hygienic environment that provides even the most basic comforts.

“Children are living in extremely unhealthy conditions. Most of them do not even have soap to wash” said Doctor Umar Riaz, a member of the Pakistan Red Crescent Society (PRCS).

Doctor Umar added that the ongoing fighting and the subsequent uprooting of children from their homes have resulted in significant psychological trauma. “They need to engage in sports and other social activities to cope with the situation,” he said.

For the PRCS, the health and welfare of these children is among the top priorities of the appeal for emergency funding that was launched in June to provide humanitarian relief for internally displaced people in Pakistan. These funds are urgently needed but have as yet met with a very poor response. It seems we have our work cut out for us if we are to convince donors and general public that the needs in Pakistan are pressing and present.

This post is based on an article written by my colleague Mubashir Fida in Pakistan which first appeared -- Mubashir also took the photos accompanying this post.


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