It’s a scene of confusion: weeping children and distraught mothers, gangs of men aimlessly wandering the dusty footpaths of what is supposed to be a place of refuge. The occasional military helicopter circles in a wide arc over the sprawling Sheik Yasin camp for Pakistan’s displaced in Mardan, 110 km northwest of the capital Islamabad. Checkpoints at the camp’s entrance are a stern warning that this is no ordinary refugee facility—there is danger here.
Further north, in the Swat Valley, war of a kind most Pakistanis have never seen before is raging on the streets of Mingora. It’s the largest city in Swat, and the epicentre of the battle between Taliban militants and the Pakistani army to win control of the picturesque valley and, potentially, Pakistan’s future. This is brutal urban warfare—street by street, house by house—with the city now fractured into areas controlled by the Taliban and areas taken by the military. Caught in-between are civilians, as many as 20,000 left in Mingora, with no chance to escape and basic supplies like food and water running out.
The situation has reached a critical point. But even as the hundreds of thousands still trapped in Swat beg the army and the Taliban for an opportunity to escape, the estimated 2.4 million who have managed to reach havens like Sheik Yasin are struggling in their own way to survive. This is where the real tragedy of Pakistan is playing out: a tsunami of men, women and children driven from their homes, the largest movement of humanity Pakistan has seen since the turbulence of partition in 1947 when over seven million Muslims living in the newly independent India migrated—some to save their lives, others to better them—to reach the promised land: an infant Pakistan. There they were promised peace, security, and a chance for a better future. Over 60 years later, that has not happened. Pakistan is again at war, with masses of people scrambling for safety and wondering whatever happened to the idealism of their founding fathers.
But there is little refuge in Sheik Yasin, and other camps like it scattered around Pakistan’s north. The politics and power struggles playing out in Swat are also playing out here, under a blazing sun that pushes the mercury past 40° C, and in an atmosphere of fear, mistrust and misery. Facilities are inadequate: tents trap heat, turning temporary shelters into hothouses, water containers are left in the open so that cold water is a luxury, and medical facilities are either non-existent or severely understaffed. Dr. Asima Karim, one of the few female doctors around, admits to a feeling of disgust when she sees how poorly the camp is being run. She is part of a mobile health unit sent from Lahore, intended to service the outlying villages where some of the displaced have gone to seek shelter with relatives or sympathetic villagers. “I’m shocked,” she says. “Why are there so many people coming to us for help? Why are there no doctors in the camps?” Her hospital, a converted bus, has been sitting in Sheik Yasin for days, overwhelmed by the conditions there while villagers in need are forced to wait.
For her, corruption is the main culprit behind the poor response to the crisis, as it was in 2005 following a devastating earthquake in Kashmir. Even as Pakistani officials demand hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency funds from the international community to cope with the surging demand for aid, the underlying corruption that has already crippled what is, in practice, more of an aid industry than a community continues to operate unabated. Any new injection of cash will likely end up feeding that beast. And in Pakistan, where any how-to guide to making it big would probably include a chapter on the potential riches to be found in operating an aid agency, it is a hungry beast indeed.
According to Jehangir Toru, the founder of the Toru Tigers volunteer aid group, corruption has infected every level of the government and military. “I’ll tell you something I saw here with my own eyes,” he says. “There was a consignment of aid that arrived from community donations. These people, villagers, gave what little they have to help their fellow citizens. When the aid arrived at the camp, a politician took it, covered it with his party’s logo, and distributed it in the name of the party.”
A volunteer with Dr. Karim’s mobile hospital interjects with another story: “We were bringing three truckloads of supplies donated by people in Punjab to one of the camps. Just as we were arriving at the camp, we were stopped at an army checkpoint. They redirected us to a base close to the camp where they transferred the supplies to their own trucks, told us to leave, and went to the camp to distribute it in the name of the army.”
But claiming false credit is only the tip of the iceberg. Critics say politicians and military leaders want to control the flow of aid, so money comes through them—and is more easily siphoned off. “Look at these so-called aid agencies,” Toru says, pointing to the booths lining the road that runs down the centre of Sheik Yasin camp. “They advertise medical assistance, but all they have is a counter piled with medicines and a village teenager sitting behind it. At best, they might have a pharmacist. But pharmacists are not trained to diagnose illness.” It’s true—Pakistan’s pharmacists have little or no real medical training, and the booths look more like T-shirt stands at a rock concert than legitimate medical facilities. Toru says the majority of these organizations, including the army and political parties, are playing out a long-established drama: give the appearance of doing something, take some pictures for the donor agencies like the UN, wait for the next donation—and pocket your percentage.