Some Pakistanis buried their dead before they fled to save their own lives. Many abandoned wheat fields, shops and restaurants. Most now live packed in sweltering towns and makeshift camps where water, health care and patience are in critically short supply.
The exodus from embattled northwest Pakistan is the largest that UN officials have seen since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Some 2 million people have run for their lives in the past three weeks as the U.S.-backed Pakistan army pounded Taliban strongholds with fighter jets, helicopter gunships and ground troops.
There are many reasons to worry about these displaced Pakistanis, beginning with the basic concern of one human being for another. The Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee is among many aid groups mobilizing to stop this crisis from morphing into mass disaster.
Another worry — what Marvi Memon calls the “minds and hearts” factor — looms as American forces gear up across the border in Afghanistan to rout al Qaeda leaders and their Taliban sympathizers from mountain hideouts.
Memon is a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly. She was one of five Pakistani Parliament members visiting Minneapolis last weekend as part of a tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department. The Minnesota International Center helped organize the Twin Cities stay.
Walking along the Nicollet Mall, Memon explained why she had been eager to discuss the complexities of the crisis with American journalists.
“We need to dialog better with people,” she said. “Mostly what you see in Pakistan is emotional scenes and very anti-American slogans. It’s very popular to be anti-American back home.”
If anti-American sentiment was popular before Washington pushed Pakistan’s government into attacking the Taliban, imagine what could come as misery mounts among the masses of civilians displaced by the fighting.
There is real danger that local sympathy will turn not only against America but also against the shaky, nuclear-armed government in Islamabad.
“If we don’t get this right, we are going to lose the minds and hearts just like this,” Memon said, snapping her fingers. “It is very, very critical to get this right. . . . We appreciate the fact that the United States is giving aid, but it’s not just a question of getting the money in. It’s a timing issue. The timing has to be immediate.”
With the government overwhelmed by the human tide surging from the war zone, displaced Pakistanis are turning to Islamic charities with close ties to militant insurgents, the Washington Post reported.
“Refugee camps in Pakistan have been prime recruiting grounds for militant groups ever since the Soviet invasion forced millions of Afghans to cross into Pakistan in the 1980s,” the Post said. “Now, concern is growing that this latest wave of displacement will create a fresh crop of Pakistanis with grievances against the government and loyalty to groups that seek to undermine the state through violent insurgency.”
Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for President Asif Ali Zardari, told the Post: “”If people are not looked after well, they tend to become extremists. It hasn’t happened yet, but we’re very conscious of it.”
Response from Minnesota
The American Refugee Committee already had a large staff on the ground in Pakistan when the crisis erupted. ARC teams have worked for eight years to provide health services and other aid for refugees from Afghanistan.
ARC quickly diverted some doctors and engineers to help the displaced Pakistanis. It also brought in Northfield native Gary Dahl who directs ARC’s operations in Thailand where he has years of experience helping refugees from Myanmar.
Among other projects in Pakistan, the ARC team is setting up a water system near the northwestern city of Mardan, a primary destination for civilians fleeing the Swat Valley region. The city is studded with refugee camps consisting of endless rows of tan canvas tents that bake under 110-degree skies, the Post said.
“Schools are packed to capacity with families sleeping on concrete classroom floors, with each classroom housing 40 or more people,” it said. “Virtually every spare bedroom in the city is being used to host displaced civilians, who may have to wait months or longer to return home.”
Imagine that all of Minnesota’s 5 million residents suddenly were pushed into Minneapolis and St. Paul, filling every building and camping in parking lots and parks, said Monte Achenbach, ARC’s Vice President for International Programs.
Of course, conditions are far worse in Pakistan because many of the host families already were short on food and other basic needs. Now they have no idea when their unexpected “guests” can go home.
On the plus side, this crisis differs from others around the world in that so many Pakistanis have opened their homes and shared their food, Achenbach said.
Still the host cities are overwhelmed. Water and sewer systems are utterly inadequate to handle the huge influx of people. And there is nowhere near enough medicine.
“If agencies and governments don’t respond in a hurry, there are going to be serious health problems,” said Scott Charlesworth, who directs ARC’s field operations.
Charlesworth was back in Minneapolis this week after working for a month in Pakistan, and he was briefing Michael Barringer-Mills who is set to fly over there.
“Any time you have large collection of displaced people without adequate water, you have a high risk for respiratory problems, measles and other diseases,” Barringer-Mills said. “Cholera is the No. 1 fear, but there are lots of others.”
Pakistan’s government has drawn international criticism because it called for civilians to flee the conflict zone without preparing adequately for their needs.
“We wanted them out because we didn’t want them to be used as human shields,” Memon explained. “The Talibans are trying to encourage these people to go back to their homes. We don’t want to send them back until we have cleared up those areas.”
How long that might take, she couldn’t say.
“It wouldn’t be rational to put a time limit on it because we don’t know how long the military operation is going to last,” she said. “Your objective is to go out and zap extremists wherever they are even if it takes one month, two months, three months.
ARC is gearing up to serve the needs for at least six to nine months, Achenbach said.
“The scale is so overwhelming, that it will take some time just to get everyone back into their homes,” he said. “There are whole communities that have been emptied out, and you wonder how they get pieced back together and how robust the system of authority will prove to be.”
ARC staffers declined to talk about sensitive U.S-Pakistani politics.
Almost all of ARC’s field workers are Pakistani. And American staffers have to “lie low,” Charlesworth said.
“Some people wouldn’t have a problem, but many would, especially if we were viewed as having any connection with the United States government,” he said. “So we really have to go under the radar screen in many ways.”
Common enemy but deeply divided
While the governments in Islamabad and Washington share the powerful bond of a common enemy, they are deeply divided on issue after issue. In that regard, my conversation with Memon was unsettling even while I agreed wholeheartedly with her call for dialog.
Memon worked on media relations for former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf. Now her party, the Pakistan Muslim League, is in the opposition. So she often sounds a critical voice in Islamabad.
When it comes to the United States, though, her views reflect those you often hear in Pakistan. So I will share them. They do, indeed, illustrate an urgent need for dialog at the very least.
President Obama’s emerging strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan (dubbed AfPak) is flawed in several respects, Memon said.
For starters, Obama views the two countries as terrorism’s stronghold. Thus he proposes a unified policy for them.
But, it offends Memon to hear Obama talk about Pakistan and Afghanistan in the same breath.
“It whips up the sentiment that Pakistan and Afghanistan are on the same levels,” she said. “Pakistan is a nuclear state. Pakistan is battling Talibans. Pakistan does not want to be put in the same category as Afghanistan.”
Memon also took offense at many related assertions from Washington:
• That Osama bin Laden is hiding in Pakistan. “If he is in Pakistan we would like to have his GPS coordinates. Kindly give them to us. We will go after him.”
• That Pakistan’s government is unstable. “Pakistan is a stable country. We are a nuclear state. . . . We have many issues with our government, but that does not mean that we as a country are unstable or that we require any assistance from outside to make us stable. We will defend our sovereignty at all costs. And, for that, we as a nation are united.”
• That Pakistan’s nuclear weapons could fall into the wrong hands. “Nobody talks about the nukes in India, but the West has an obsession with our nukes. And the West needs to get rid of its fears about Pakistan’s nukes because the Pakistani armed forces are fully capable of securing our nuclear assets and as a parliamentarian I have full faith that they will do so.”
One common criticism in the West is that Pakistan has been so obsessed over perceived threats from India that it has ignored the deadly buildup by the Taliban and other militant forces. I asked Memon to respond.
She was ready: “Yes we are obsessed with India, but we are rationally obsessed. India has actually sent infiltrators and agents into Pakistan to destabilize areas. …. So yes, India is an issue, and it will continue to be until you resolve the Kashmir conflict.”
If there is any hope for Obama’s strategy, it must be an AfPakIn approach, she insisted.
“India has to be included,” she said. “Without including India, you don’t solve the region’s issues because India is part of the problem. . . . India does not wish to discuss the core issue, which is Kashmir. There are certain issues in the Muslim world — like Palestine and like Kashmir — which, if they are not resolved, will continue to create instability.”
On another touchy issue, Memon adamantly rejected an effort by the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs last week to attach conditions to $400 million in military aid for Pakistan. One condition would have required “direct access to Pakistani nationals” associated with nuclear weapons material supply networks, Reuters reported. It was a clear bid to question the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear program, A.Q. Khan. He disputes allegations that he ran an international black market in atomic technology, and Pakistan has shielded him from outside investigators.
“That is a complete no go,” Memon said. “No way! No parliamentarian would allow Dr. A. Q. to be given to anyone for interrogation.”
“Because this is nobody else’s business.”
She also rejected the U.S. deployment of killer drones to strike militant targets in Pakistan’s border region near Afghanistan.
“Please give us the drones, and we will man them ourselves,” Memon said. “We don’t wish to have you involved in droning our lands because you are not respecting our sovereignty.”
Even when it comes to fighting the common enemy, Memon expressed Pakistan’s independent spirit.
“We need to zap out the extremists from wherever they are,” she said. “But we need to do it, no one else.”
Still, the country needs U.S. dollars. And the masses of displaced Pakistanis make the need ever more compelling. Washington is preparing to send $110 million for their cause as well as more military aid.
“We need aid right now and it’s not a good position to be in,” Memon said. “But we don’t wish to have aid without dignity because we are a nuclear state. And a lot of issues within Pakistan have been created by the West’s involvement in the Afghanistan situation since the 1970s and ’80s. So the West has a responsibility for what’s happening in Pakistan now.”
Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.