It has been one year since the residents of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) Province, Pakistan witnessed one of the largest displacements in recent times. Civilians poured into Swabi and Mardan Districts from the neighboring districts of Swat, Buner and Lower Dir to escape the fighting between Pakistani security forces and anti-government militants. In May 2009, the Pakistan government launched a full-fledged military operation against militants after they took control of major portions of these districts and established parallel governments there. For weeks, the roads were choked with thousands of men, women and children traveling in cars, buses, trucks and on foot, clinging to their belongings and families, confused and scared, not sure what just happened to them and not knowing where to go.
This was one of the largest and swiftest displacements in the country’s history; in the span of six weeks more than two million had become internally displaced persons (IDPs). Indeed, a recent United Nations study found Pakistan had the highest number of the world’s internally displaced people in 2009. Out of a population of 170 million, some three million Pakistanis were displaced—three times more than the second-place country in 2009, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Most of the IDPs in Pakistan had time to grab only a few personal belongings before they fled the intense fighting. They immediately needed shelter, food, access to drinking water and health facilities. The scorching heat in the plains of Swabi and Mardan added to their miseries as the IDPs were accustomed to the cooler climate of their mountainous hometowns. The twin traumas of conflict and displacement, compounded by the loss of property, family members and uncertainty about the future, resulted in widespread psychological problems among the IDPs, especially among women and children.
The Pakistan government, UN agencies and humanitarian organizations scrambled to address this massive and sudden displacement, quickly ramping up their response to the immediate needs of the IDPs—seven new camps were established, providing basic facilities to the IDPs. The people of the hosting districts were at the forefront of relief efforts. In addition to providing non-food items, they opened their hearts and homes to the IDPs, who for cultural reasons preferred to stay with the host families; fewer than 20 percent of IDPs went on to stay in camps.
By August 2009, the Pakistani military had cleared large areas of Swat, Buner and Lower Dir of militants and the IDPs began to return to their home areas. The return was as swift as the displacement and the majority of IDPs repatriated within a few weeks.
However, while relieved to be home again, their struggles continue to this day. Healthcare and educational facilities suffered the most from the conflict. Buildings were destroyed, supplies and equipment looted and staff had to re-locate to safer locations, leaving a large segment of population with no education or health services. Houses also were destroyed or damaged in the fighting while the standing crops, which were the main source of livelihoods for the local population, were decimated because they could not be harvested on time. According to government estimates, more than 12,000 houses, 400 schools and 44 government health facilities were damaged or destroyed; few of them have been reconstructed until now.
While almost all the IDPs from Swat, Buner and Lower Dir have repatriated, there are still 1.4 million IDPs living in the Hangu, Kohat, D.I. Khan, Tank, Lower Dir and Nowshehra Districts of KPK, who are displaced due to fighting between security forces and militants in several parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. That number increases daily and the majority of them are reluctant to return due to ongoing fighting or fear of renewed fighting in their hometowns.
Non-governmental organizations and UN agencies are supporting the government in the provision of basic services like health and education to the 1.4 million IDPs and in the areas of return, where little has been done so far to rehabilitate the government systems and livelihoods of the local population. These services are desperately needed for the foreseeable future until all the IDPs repatriate, the conflict zones are rehabilitated to sustainable levels, and local governance systems are restored.
The humanitarian community, however, faces serious shortfalls in donor funding. At the beginning of this year, the UN launched a combined appeal to international donors for $537 million for six months. To date, it is only 26 percent funded. With no significant commitments from donors beyond June, it is feared that most of the UN agencies and NGOs will be forced to close their programs, leaving millions of IDPs and returnees without access to life-saving services.
Meanwhile the returnees struggle to resume a normal life amid an uncertain future and fears that militants may regain control of their area, causing them to flee once again.