Refugee Camps Swell As Fighting Rages In Pakistan

Two girls wait for a water delivery at a refugee camp in Pakistan i

Children lugging an array of containers line up for water at the Chota Lahor refugee camp. Potable water arrives twice a day but is barely enough for the 5,000 residents of the isolated camp. Junaid Khan for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Junaid Khan for NPR
Two girls wait for a water delivery at a refugee camp in Pakistan

Children lugging an array of containers line up for water at the Chota Lahor refugee camp. Potable water arrives twice a day but is barely enough for the 5,000 residents of the isolated camp.

Junaid Khan for NPR
Husan Baha, a grandmother of three, is among the refugees. i

Husan Baha, a grandmother of three, is one of nearly 800,000 Pakistanis who have been displaced during fighting between the Taliban and Pakistani government forces. She is now living in the Chota Lahor refugee camp, where conditions are harsh and water is scarce. Julie McCarthy/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Julie McCarthy/NPR
Husan Baha, a grandmother of three, is among the refugees.

Husan Baha, a grandmother of three, is one of nearly 800,000 Pakistanis who have been displaced during fighting between the Taliban and Pakistani government forces. She is now living in the Chota Lahor refugee camp, where conditions are harsh and water is scarce.

Julie McCarthy/NPR
Workers prepare lamps for arriving refugees. i

At the Chota Lahor refugee camp, in the district of Swabi, workers struggle to provide lighting for new arrivals. Basic necessities of food, medicine and shelter are needed to accommodate a flood of refugees. Junaid Khan for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Junaid Khan for NPR
Workers prepare lamps for arriving refugees.

At the Chota Lahor refugee camp, in the district of Swabi, workers struggle to provide lighting for new arrivals. Basic necessities of food, medicine and shelter are needed to accommodate a flood of refugees.

Junaid Khan for NPR

The number of refugees displaced by fighting in northwestern Pakistan swelled to more than 800,000, military officials said Tuesday, as Pakistan's army continued its efforts to uproot Taliban militants.

International relief agencies say camps for the displaced are overflowing. Twenty-two camps now accommodate those escaping the arc of fighting that stretches across the mountain- and stream-dotted districts of Lower Dir, Buner and Swat Valley.

The creation of nearly a million refugees inside Pakistan did not figure into the military's calculations when it launched its counteroffensive two weeks ago against the insurgency in Buner and militant strongholds in Swat Valley. In April, the Taliban took advantage of a truce in the rugged northwest region to push into territory a morning's drive from Pakistan's capital, Islamabad.

Some refugees say they fear the Taliban militants are among them, moving unchecked among the thousands of homeless.

Difficult Conditions In Crowded Camps

In Chota Lahor, a sprawling camp south of Swat Valley, the newly displaced rush water-delivery trucks. Potable water arrives at least twice a day, barely enough for the 5,000 residents here. Children get lost in the clouds of dust created as the trucks lumber into the desolate camp.

The children wear scars of their mad dash from the war zone. Their tiny faces are red with scabs. Doctors say scabies, diarrhea, dehydration and respiratory infections are rampant throughout the displaced population.

Husan Baha, a grandmother of three, and her family fled the fighting nearly two weeks ago, leaving behind their farm in Buner with grains in the field and cattle tied to pegs. They arrived at the Chota Lahor camp when there were only four tents. There are now over 500 tents, and the living is hard.

"We are out in this dust with no help in sight," she says, coughing. "We have come to these burning deserts, and have been here for the last 12 days. Even this morning, we killed a snake in this tent.

"All they give us to eat is rice. Those who are ill become more ill. Those who are healthy become sick," she says, stifling tears.

Relief Workers Struggle To Handle The Exodus

The United Nations plans to ask foreign governments for money to support the massive humanitarian relief effort in Pakistan. About 80,000 people are crowding into the camps just south of the battle zone, the U.N. says. Hundreds of thousands more are taking shelter with relatives and friends or in spontaneous settlements springing up across the countryside.

Meanwhile, relief workers are scrambling to build latrines, dig wells, and string lighting on the Chota Lahor campsite, where the remnants of a decayed colonial British outpost still stand.

The traumatized refugees recall the scenes they witnessed as they fled the fighting: bodies left in the streets to rot, their villages bombarded, their lives upended. One father with a dazed look says he lost two of his children.

A map produced by the BBC's Urdu language service suggests that only 38 percent of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province is under full government control.

Arshid Ali, just arrived from Mingora, the central city of Swat Valley, has seen signs of it. The Taliban was in control of Mingora when he left, with no signs of an army presence opposing the militants. He says there is nothing to stop the Taliban militants from spilling out of Swat if they choose.

"All these families who have come out. No checking was done on them. No one knows how many Taliban have snuck out disguised as ordinary people. These militants are gradually spreading to these areas," he says nervously, furtively checking to make sure that no one else is listening as he talks to a reporter.

People like Ali, who escaped with his father, are refugees in their own homeland.

Many of them complain bitterly that the Pakistani army's aerial and artillery bombardments do not inflict much damage on the militants but instead force innocent civilians to flee their villages.

"All the bigwigs sit in comfort and have no idea what the citizens suffer. They just issue orders to eliminate people. Anyone who gets killed," Ali says, is likely "to be called Taliban."

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