By Zahid Hussain
The latest military offensive against militants in Swat appears to be more effective than the previous ones, which had ended inconclusively and after massive destruction and significant civilian deaths.
A major difference this time around is greater public backing for the military action against the insurgents responsible for breaching the peace accord. A consensus is finally emerging among major political parties on the militant threat to national security.
But all that could be lost if the government does not take emergency steps to deal with the rising humanitarian crisis caused by displacement of more than a million people because of escalation in fighting.
The government is struggling to cope with this calamity at the same time as conducting what amounts to a civil war on several fronts.
The unprecedented humanitarian crisis also has the potential of becoming an explosive political issue that could undermine the gains made by the military in the battlefield.
‘The government needs to mobilise itself and the public to mount an unprecedented humanitarian response, otherwise all the military gains will wane,’ warns Maleeha Lodhi, a former ambassador.
Crammed into buses, vans and trucks tens of thousands of people have fled their homes in terror as fighting escalated in Swat valley.
Bedraggled and exhausted, they are pouring by the thousands every day into camps established by the government in various parts of the North West Frontier Province.
The number of refugees is increasing by the day as the fighting intensifies. The UN says more than 200,000 people have left Swat over the last few days, and another 300,000 are on the move or trying to leave following the collapse of a brief truce between the government and the Taliban last week.
They will join the estimated 555,000 who have fled other conflict zones in the tribal areas and the province since August, taking the total number of displaced people in the region to more than one million. The UN and Pakistani officials fear the number could go up to 1.5 million with little hope of the fighting ending soon.
The sudden flood of refugees is putting an extra strain on local resources, including health care. However, the government’s inability to cope with the problem is now angering many people —and opening another window for militant groups trying to recruit disgruntled and unemployed young men.
A visit to the Jalala camp in Mardan district gave a glimpse of the administration’s incompetence to deal with the problem of such magnitude.
Thousands of women and children waited in the scorching sun for hours just to get themselves registered at the camp, entitling them to get a place there.
A single clerk sat inside a small crowded tent jotting down the names of new comers. Outside a frustrated crowd vented its resentment against the government.
Then there are hundreds and thousands of others who are still trapped in the midst of fighting and are unable to flee.
They face hunger, exposure, and uncertainty about their future. Civilians trapped in the crossfire have little chance to get food, water or medical care, particularly after the fighting has forced international humanitarian organisations to completely or partially halt their activities in Swat.
Even before this new offensive, non-combatants in the affected areas were already struggling to survive a terrible situation. Curfews, roadblocks and fierce fighting make it virtually impossible for them to reach hospitals and clinics.
‘They are literally locked into this situation of extreme violence. On top of that, it is largely impossible for our medical teams to assist them,’ says Brice de le Vingne, Brussels-based coordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which has halted its emergency medical care in the Swat region and reduced activities in other areas affected by the current warfare.
The MSF was the only one supporting the hospital in Mingora and providing ambulance services in Swat and curtailed its activities after receiving unspecified threats.
Aid groups said the situation has gone from dire to absolutely desperate and there is every chance that it will get even worse, making things completely untenable.
The problem seems to have worsened because of absence of a coherent policy and lack of timely response from the government. The administration was nowhere to be seen when the first flow of refugees started pouring in after the military action in Buner some two weeks ago. There should have been a contingency plan in place when the decision to launch the military offensive was taken.
There appears to be no coordination between the federal and provincial governments and the military. No leader has visited the conflict areas or even the camps to show their solidarity with the people who have become a major casualty of a battle that some observers reckon is ‘soul of Pakistan’.
The prime minister has appealed to the international community for assistance. But what is needed at this point more than anything else is a show of political resolve to deal with the catastrophe; to win hearts and minds by addressing the needs of the displaced people. If this is not done it would create a vacuum for the militants to fill.