Pakistan-Taliban fighting creates 2.2 million refugees

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — An estimated 2.2 million people have been driven from their homes by fighting in Pakistan's Swat Valley — raising the specter of a humanitarian crisis rivaling the refugee exodus during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, relief workers on the ground in Pakistan say.

On-site assessments and media reports on the needs of internally displaced people indicate a lack of food staples, cooking utensils, bedding and shelter, reported Francis Horton, who directs work in southern Asia for Baptist Global Response, an international relief and development organization.

A relief effort has begun to provide 1,000 families with desperately needed food, blankets and cooking utensils through World Hunger and General Relief funds. This follows another initiative that addressed the needs of 75 families.

The vast majority of the people fleeing Pakistan's Swat Valley and two adjoining districts in northwest Pakistan are staying with relatives or renting a place to live, rather than entering government camps, Horton said. The largest percentage of refugees appears to be women and children.

The exodus began April 26, when government troops launched an assault on Taliban fighters in the Swat Valley. The government had signed an agreement with the Taliban in February allowing the Taliban to implement Sharia law in the Swat Valley in return for ending their year-long insurgency. Taliban militants, however, quickly moved into surrounding districts as close to 60 miles from the capital and even made shows of force in the Karachi area, some 700 miles away. The government responded with an offensive that it says has killed an estimated 1,190 Taliban, with the loss of 75 government soldiers.

Pakistan faces a humanitarian crisis on a level the world has not seen since millions of Rwandans fled the 1994 genocide in that country, said one relief worker in the area. Many are arriving in destitution after a dangerous journey.

"Men, women and children fled the violence in buses, taxis, trucks, carts and on foot," the worker said. "Few people were afforded the luxury of bringing their belongings with them. Most escaped with only the clothes they were wearing and possessions they could carry in their hands.

"Upon reaching 'safety,' these refugees stumbled into hastily established tent camps, which were inadequately prepared to deal with the barrage of refugees who arrive in greater numbers every day," the worker said. "Food supplies are inadequate. The lack of sanitation facilities and crowded conditions proliferate infections and disease. In an effort to avoid these conditions, families seek shelter in apartments with relatives, with 20 or 30 people vying for space in small rented rooms."

Besides needing the bare necessities of daily survival, women are struggling in the crowded conditions, the worker noted. "Many of these women have spent their entire lives observing 'purdah,' the practice of seclusion from men who aren't close relatives through wearing a 'burqa' or remaining inside the confines of one's home," he said.

"I have remained within the four walls of our house since the day I was married, 35 years ago," one woman told a relief worker. "I have left it and our small courtyard on only a few occasions."

"These women have never shopped or used local transportation on their own," the relief worker said. "This is the first time many of them have left their village. These women face tremendous difficulty even in simple tasks such as shopping and transportation. They do not speak the national language and they have very little money left to buy food."

The relief initiative is being conducted in partnership with national partners, including Christians and a team of men who were helped after an earthquake devastated their homes in 2005 and now are helping in the assessment effort at their own expense, Horton said.

The relief supplies being distributed involve food rations — including rice, flour, salt, sugar, powdered milk and cooking oil — as well as cooking and eating utensils. The project also will address the need for clean water and will provide tents, sleeping mats and blankets where those needs exist.

The initiative is being funded with $56,500 from the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund and $43,000 from the General Relief Fund, Horton said. The cost per beneficiary is approximately $16.50. The earlier project was funded with $3,000 from the World Hunger Fund and $2,000 from the General Relief Fund.

Reaching out to people in this crisis will help them experience God's love and could open the door for future community development initiatives that would help them improve the quality of their lives once they are able to return home, Horton said.

"These people will have the opportunity to meet Christians who care about the crisis they are experiencing," Horton said. "Experiencing God's love firsthand through this outreach will give them an opportunity to understand God's love and His desire for them to have meaningful lives filled with purpose and hope."

Christians involved in the relief effort asked other believers to specifically pray that:

• The government of Pakistan will respond quickly and with integrity during this crisis and that God would raise up faithful leaders who will act righteously toward the people.

• Adequate provisions will reach the needy, medicine will reach the sick and justice will be administered to those who take advantage of the poor.

• Opportunities would arise for ministering through distribution and education and that national partners would come alongside to help with the effort.

"Please pray for our teams as we have an opportunity to share the love of Christ and be His hands and feet here," one relief worker said. "As we supply food, water, bedding, cooking items and educational support, pray that we would be Christ to these people."


Information about giving to the World Hunger Fund is available at www.worldhungerfund.com.

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