Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Visit to Swat and Buner IDP Camps

When disaster hits a country like Pakistan, where nobody trusts the government, private relief becomes the way to get things done. This happened during the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, when the roads going up north were clogged with volunteers and relief supplies, and it is happening again with the ongoing IDP crisis.

This weekend, I visited IDP camps in Swabi, about twenty miles from Swat and Buner. I was with a group of businessmen-philanthropists who had filled a truck full of food, medicine, toys, and sewing machines in Karachi, and sent it on the three-day journey ahead of us.

We were consistently impressed by the UN camps we saw—even more so because they were run by the Government of Pakistan.

The first, called “Chota Lahore,” meaning "Little Lahore," was bustling with market activity. Small, makeshift shops lined the dirt path leading to the camp. People were also lined up to get their national ID cards (in order to receive aid) and medical care. A huge UN World Food Programme tent anchored the camp.

Next, we visited a beautiful government school housing IDPs. We had to confirm several times that it was a government school—the spacious, green campus looked like it should belong to the military or a private institution. One room, covered in colorful bolts of cloth, hummed as about eight women stitched away furiously on sewing machines. And kids were taking lessons in at least two classrooms, while another room was being used as a clinic.

We finally drove deeper—into a sea of white tents in an open field. The sight was incredible, but what we saw next was truly shocking. A black chord was strung across the front of each tent, seeming to connect them in their long rows. Electricity.

We could see large electric fans whirring inside, critical in the intense heat. We were told that officials allowed "loadshedding" (Pakistan's daily electricity outages) in the nearby town, but not in the camp. Even Islamabad doesn't get electricity 24 hours a day.

Clean water was also being delivered to the front of each tent. We passed a two story building under construction, all gray cement, and were told that it had been raised in the past five days. A soccer field was also being developed.

This was all Government of Pakistan. A sign read: Electrified by the Peshawar Development Authority. The man managing the camp was part of the Government of the Frontier, and the business-philanthropists, normally government skeptics, could not stop raving about his sincerity and commitment. (As a woman, I was somehow tricked into waiting in the car so did not meet him.)

Things were not perfect of course, detailed here. The heat, in the open field, meant that many people were getting sick. And only a fraction of the IDPs are in camps. Much more destitute tents were pitched on the side of the highway, and there are certainly much more isolated, scattered IDP populations.

But the camps taught me two things. First, they demonstrate what the Government of Pakistan can do, given the right combination of political will and international pressure. International pressure is powerful currency in Pakistan, but it takes much more than that to overcome to hurdles of capacity, bureaucracy, and perceptions of national interest. To get action to back up words, our demands must make as much sense in Islamabad and Multan as they do in Washington and Cleveland.

Secondly, I learned that governments are not enough. Even at the height of its effectiveness, it was clear that civil society in Pakistan has a critical role to play in filling obvious, and less obvious, gaps. Private citizens, not the government or UN, were providing sewing machines to the IDPs, generating income and clothing for a population that has nothing but what they were wearing the day the bombing started. Similarly, I saw many children excited and jostling for juice boxes, being handed out daily, like cones from an ice cream truck. This was also privately arranged, along with a monitoring and enforcement mechanism to prevent juice box littering.

And it may only be local hospitality that has made this crisis barely manageable.

But the real fears are for the future of the camps. I worry that as international attention drifts, they will become neglected, like the Bajaur camps I saw in Peshawar, or informally settled, like Afghan slums in Kabul and Karachi. There are also serious questions about the rebuilding of Swat and the tribal areas, completely destroyed through war, and the return and rehabilitation of refugees.

Regional stability and international security are tied to these questions. Harnessing Pakistani civil society, through public-private partnerships domestically and internationally, will multiply our capacity to grapple with the challenge.


  1. The government of Pakistan has more of a burden in trying to deal with this issue. The govt simply does not know how to manage this crisis and before they get a taskforce and a plan of action in place, it may be too late.

    Private help through individuals or non-profits are helping. However, when the funds run out...what then?

    It is sad that Pakistanis are having to live in these conditions. The govt. has more than enough resources and manpower, it just needs to channel it more effectively. And it needs to work together with private agencies in reaching a common goal.

  2. Wow! This is so well written. Keep it up, Nadia. You're doing a good job of keeping us updated.

  3. It almost felt like I was there, you painted a very vivid picture. Fascinating read! :)

  4. Hi Nadia I am impressed by your work amd would like to volunteer in a similar manner. I tried to find your contact information on this website but couldn't. I would appreciate it f you could let me know the name of the NGO you are working with so that I may contact them.

  5. Hi Nadia,

    I was going through my email and saw this link that my father had forwarded a year ago. Must have been during the IDP crises.

    Like you said "the man managing the camp" is my father. Your blog just brought a smile to my face and I wanted to say how much I appreciate you writing this.

    Thank you so much.

    Bushra Rahman
    Peshawar. KPP

  6. Thanks for getting in touch, Bushra. I'm glad you and your father appreciated the post. Public servants like him deserve to be thanked. I just hope that next time he makes sure women are included in the discussion, instead of being left outside (like I was) =)

  7. Heh! I will definitely pass on the message :). If and when you do visit Peshawar next, lets hope its different than the last time.