Sunday, May 24, 2009

Peshawar: Taliban, IDPs, and Car Bombs

Yesterday, a fellow Harvard graduate student, Umaimah, and I left Karachi for Peshawar. We would have to spend the night there before we could catch a connecting flight to Kabul. Peshawar is heavily Talibanized and we were nervous about the trip, so we turned down offers to be shown around the IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps in the region. But as we whiled away the hours at the home of a family friend (the safest thing to do, especially for girls, in Peshawar), we came to regret the decision. I called up Khalid, a contact that my uncle had sent to Peshawar and instructed to stay there until we made it out safely, and told him we would like to see the IDP camps.

IDP camps were probably not on the list of safe things to do, but Khalid was eager to please. He arranged private security and got us access to a UN camp on the outskirts of the city for refugees from Bajaur, one of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which was reduced to rubble by the Pakistani Army in its 2008-2009 operations against the Taliban.

The camp looked like destroyed mud ruins. Like many IDP camps, it was originally developed for Afghan refugees, then destroyed when they chose or were forced to leave. Deeper in, simple white UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) tents were set up. The people told us that they had been in the camp for 8 months, displaced before the current Swat crisis which has captured international attention. They had been living in primitive conditions-- no electricity, little or no running water, suffocating heat, inadequate provisions, and the kids could not go to school because they had to help with survival. For example, they only way to create fire to cook food was to burn trash. So we met several kids carrying bags of empty juice boxes and other trash that they had spent all day collecting. At least one of those boys had dropped out of school to collect trash. 
All of the kids were filthy and improperly clothed. We were told they cried all night because of the mosquitos and cold. UNICEF logos were everywhere.

The women and children seemed happy to have visitors, but the men were frustrated and skeptical. They had been forced to leave as the Pakistani Army began bombing and bulldozing their homes to root out the Taliban. One man told us that soldiers looted their homes before bulldozing them, and they left with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Like everyone else, he was angry and confused. Nobody knew the Taliban or where they were, only that their lives had been destroyed by the Pakistani military. Now, they had been forgotten in camps, victims of an older crisis, while Swat IDPs nearby were receiving an outpouring of attention and aid.

As it started to get dark, our escorts rushed us out of the camp. We were told there had been a huge car bombing in the city. It was the third that week. As soon as we got home, I turned on the TV and searched for the news, but as soon as I found it, the electricity went out, which happens several times a day in Pakistan.

That night, I could not stop thinking about the people I had met in the camps and the Taliban and criminals that haunted the city outside. Our host, on the way home from the airport that morning, had told us about how scary conditions had become in the city. Bombings, kidnappings, and Taliban harassment and violence, especially towards girls, had become common. It felt like Afghanistan before the Taliban took over. Everyone who could leave Peshawar had left. They had already sent their kids abroad and, despite being well established in the city, were only waiting for their foreign visas to leave. They would abandon their property and businesses, and leave with little. There were no buyers these days, only sellers. But they had no choice.

I could not help but ask our driver, himself once displaced, the simple question: why are these bombings happening in Peshawar? Does anyone claim responsibility or explain? Yes, he said, sometimes the Taliban does, but really, people here are just fed up with their lives. The economy is so bad, people have nothing. They can barely survive. There is so much misery. Of course people like that find an outlet for their anger in violence, and become susceptible to groups like the Taliban that seem to give them some purpose or meaning in life.

Peshawar was chilling, but I only caught a glimpse. I plan to return to spend more time in the IDP camps. The camps are dangerous-- not as much for me, as for the future of Pakistan and regional and international security.  After all, the Taliban came out of madrassas in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan.  And I want to have a better sense of how aid commitments and announcements coming out of Washington are on the ground.

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