Civilian Exodus In Pakistan's Swat Valley

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More than 360,000 people in northwestern Pakistan have fled their homes in recent days. They were forced to leave as the country's military stepped up its offensive against the Taliban. Some have ended up in refugee camps just south of the battle zone. Graham Strong is the country director for the international aid group World Vision in Islamabad. He talks with Renee Montagne about the humanitarian crisis.


The United Nations puts the number of those who fled fighting in Pakistan between the government and the Taliban at 360,000. That's how many displaced people the U.N. agency has registered. Pakistan's military says there are a million more than that who fled.

They found shelter with families outside the battle zone and also refugee camps. Aid workers there say it's shaping up into a humanitarian crisis, with a need for food, water, sanitation, medicine. To hear a firsthand account, we reached Graham Strong. He's the director in Pakistan for the international aid group World Vision.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. GRAHAM STRONG (World Vision): Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: Now, this offensive against the Taliban happened pretty suddenly and with a certain ferocity that I think some of these folks might have been surprised that they ended up fleeing.

Mr. STRONG: Yes. We just - two people that we talked to during our assessment -one by the name of Mr. Ishmael - he was talking about how quick he had to leave. And as he was leaving, he saw his livestock and wheat field being destroyed.

And also a family that we talked to in the host community as well, he had a very unfortunate incident where he got separated from his son and two of his nephews and he's now still looking for his son and nephews. So there's a real urgent need to support these families with psychosocial support.

MONTAGNE: Now, how much has the government come to the aid of these people?

Mr. STRONG: The government has taken a good initiative in terms of setting up camps and providing camp management. Facilities have been set up in camps that we've visited. It's now a matter of ensuring that those standards across those camps are being met and that there's a real concerted effort in terms of addressing and assisting the need of host communities and host families. So it really is going to require every actor who can get involved in this particular crisis.

MONTAGNE: You know, interestingly, Pakistan has a history of providing a home, actually, for millions of refugees from Afghanistan who stayed for years and years and years. Does any of that experience apply at this moment in time to its own internally displaced people, Pakistani refugees?

Mr. STRONG: Yeah, I think everyone is trying to do their best to respond to this, especially the government and aid agencies on the ground. And the experience, not just dealing with the Afghan refugees but also with the earthquake that hit in 2005, a lot of that capacity is built in the governments as well as in aid agencies that have been working in Pakistan. So we're seeing that capacity being geared up.

And one of the things that we're looking at World Vision as a focus is to figure out how to improve the services in host communities and host families.

MONTAGNE: You know, it's not been that long that these people have been displaced in camps and in, you know, looking for refuge in towns and whatnot, but so far this has been traumatic, as you've described. Is there a sense of desperation at all?

Mr. STRONG: You know, just to share a story with you, with one of the host families - his name was Mr. Shab(ph). He was displaced two months ago, and he was able to get 19 members of his family into a shelter in Jalala Village. And just three days ago another nine members of his extended family came. So that's about 29 people in this shelter with about three rooms. And they're expecting another 15.

I mean, just within that family of that 29 people, 18 are children. In terms of how many people are going to be in these three rooms and their ability to stay there is questionable. And they're going to need considerable assistance.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. STRONG: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Graham Strong is the national director in Pakistan for World Vision. He joined us from Islamabad.

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