Pakistan: Three months after clashes began, Oxfam International emphasizes need for voluntary and safe returns of displaced people

By Oxfam

Three months after the clashes in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) began, aid agency Oxfam International emphasized the right of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) to return voluntarily and the need to establish sustainable security in their home villages. Oxfam International praised the Government for agreeing to uphold international standards on the return of IDPs, but said a clear information campaign is needed to help displaced people make informed decisions about returning. Now in the third week of the Government's phased plan for returns, there are an estimated 1.5 million displaced people yet to be repatriated who need reassurance that their safety will be respected and humanitarian assistance will continue.

After speaking to nearly 100 IDP women in focus group discussions held in camps and host communities over the last two weeks, Oxfam International found that despite a strong desire to return home, many still fear for the safety of their families. The displaced women living in Swabi and Mardan districts said that relatives in Swat district contacted them by mobile phones to say that homes and livelihoods have been destroyed and sporadic fighting is continuing. Others spoke of confusion on the returns process and its implications, with only limited information provided at short notice. "We hear that we should return to Swat. But there are no options for us except to go and sit on our destroyed house," said Zemit, 52, after she learned that her family home was bombed last week.

Oxfam Country Director in Pakistan Neva Khan said, "After the largest internal displacement crisis in Pakistan's history, everyone wants to see a return to normalcy including a secure and dignified return for all displaced people. We are encouraged that the Government has agreed to international guidelines but stress that the information campaign is also vital to the repatriation process."

The voluntary, safe, informed and dignified return of the IDPs is a paramount consideration for Oxfam International which, along with other members of the humanitarian community, is working with the government to help meet the needs of displaced people and particularly vulnerable women. Oxfam International is providing water, cash, cooking materials, latrines and hygiene kits for up to 360,000 men, women and children affected by fighting.

Adhering to the three-phase plan of return set up by the government, buses and security vehicles have been taking families back to the NWFP since 13 July, first from displacement and spontaneous camps followed by those staying with host families. As the IDPs return to their villages, Oxfam International will shift its focus with local partners to help provide shelter in devastated areas. In particular, assisting people who have lost their crops, livestock, shops and other livelihoods.

Between July 15th and 25th, Oxfam International staff spoke to nearly 100 IDP women in focus groups discussions in Yar Hussain camp in Swabi district and in three host communities in Mardan district. The displaced women came from Upper Swat villages including Aliadab, Khalam and Khabal. Their stories include:

ZWAHARA, age 70, from Upper Swat

"I fear my husband and son are dead. I have no income and five daughters so I must get them married quickly." When Zwahara and her five daughters were given just 30 minutes notice to vacate their village, she had to leave her paralysed son behind with his father. Taken in by a distant relative living in Swabi district, her family and 20 others of the extended family are sharing one toilet and water tap. The women are sleeping on the ground in the courtyard and desperately want to be allowed into one of the official camps for displaced families, where they believe conditions will be better. Because Zwahara has no male family member with her and no official ID card, the family have been turned away from the camps. Every member of the family suffers from diarrhoea and skin infections due to the heat and poor hygiene. Zwahara has learned from former neighbours that her house has been destroyed. No one has seen her husband or son for several weeks. The family do not plan to return to Swat.

RAHMATUN, age 22, from Upper Swat

Rahmatun's husband returned to their village several weeks ago. He told her that there is shooting in their village and the curfew makes it too dangerous for him to go out to buy food. He plans to leave their village and travel south to join her in Mardan if they can find a place to live. Rahmatun said, "The militants will behead us if we peek our heads outside of the door—we cannot send our girl children to school or anywhere with this being the case. They warned communities that if they fled during the fighting that would mean that they had sided with the Government." Rahmatun and her three small children were staying in Yar Husseim displacement camp in Swabi district.

SAHIB, age 80, from near Mingora in Swat district

Eighty-year-old Sahib, her daughter and granddaughter walked for two days and two nights to escape the fighting in Swat. For the last three months they have been living in the empty home of a wealthy family in Swabi district, the relatives of a family friend in their home village. All the family suffer from diarrhoea and the skin rash scabies because of the intense heat and lack of mobility from living in purdah. Sahib said: "I don't know what will happen to us if we go back. I want to stay here—there are too many problems in Swat."

ZEMIT, age 50, from Upper Swat

"We hear that everyone should return to Swat. But there are no options for us except to go and sit on our destroyed house," said Zemit, 52, after she learned that her family home was destroyed by bombing last week. Living with 90 family members in a temporary home, Zemit says that she misses baking bread for her family at home and desperately wishes to return. But family members who remained in Swat tell her not to return because fresh hostilities coupled with a volatile curfew order makes it dangerous for them to get food and other necessities. A local administrator in Marden district invited Zemit and her large family to stay in his guesthouse, where they've lived for nearly three months and relied on the generosity of neighbors.

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