Waziristan Offensive Creates More Pakistani Refugees

Pakistan's latest offensive against the Taliban in South Waziristan is displacing a new wave of refugees. Sebastian Brack, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Islamabad, talks with Steve Inskeep about those who've fled their homes because of the conflict.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, the military offensive that Julie mentioned is creating a new wave of refugees out of Waziristan. We asked Sebastian Brack where they're going. He is a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross based in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad.

Can you draw a picture for people? Waziristan is an area along the border with Afghanistan, right?

Mr. SEBASTIAN BRACK (International Committee of the Red Cross): That's right. It's part of what they call the federally administered tribal areas. It's rough terrain and these people are ferociously independent-minded. The operation is going to be very difficult, not just of course for the soldiers but also for the civilians because there's always a fairly large minority which chooses to stay. They don't leave their homes, and these people will be caught up in the fighting.

INSKEEP: Did the military do as they did earlier this year in the Swat Valley in Pakistan and tell large numbers of people well in advance an offensive is coming, you really must leave?

Mr. BRACK: That's what they've done, yes. But even in those areas, there was quite a significant minority which stayed behind. So we hope that there will be minimum civilian casualties, but we have to fear the worst.

INSKEEP: And it's - your impression is that although lots of people left from the Swat Valley earlier this year, that far few people have actually been on the move out of Waziristan at the moment?

Mr. BRACK: Well, far fewer would be on the move, but you have to bear in mind that Waziristan is a sparsely populated area. I think the overall population of Waziristan was estimated at roughly 300,000 in the last census 10 years ago. At the moment, even before this last offensive began, 80,000 people had already left Waziristan. Since the offensive started, the local authorities have registered something like 40,000 new people displaced.

INSKEEP: So tens of thousands of people, at least according to the local authorities, are said to be on the move. And when we look at that map of Pakistan, you've got Waziristan there, then there's a road that comes down out of the rough terrain, out of the mountains, down into the Indus River Valley, I believe, and that's where this city is, Dera Ismail Khan, where you had been hoping to help people, right?

Mr. BRACK: That's right. Most of the displaced have moved into that area and there are two reasons for this. First of all, the road, but also because traditionally many Waziris have winter homes in that area to escape from the harsh winters. But the area has been sealed off and international humanitarian workers like the ICRC have not been able to work there.

INSKEEP: What explanation have you been given for why you would not be allowed into - we should stress, not the war zone, but an area adjacent to the war zone where there might be people needing help?

Mr. BRACK: Well, there are a number of security concerns. Dera Ismail Khan has got a reputation of being quite dangerous even before the operation began. And so the idea is that the authorities are worried about our security.

INSKEEP: Is it possible that local authorities and that Pakistani aid agencies of various kinds will be able to provide enough help, or that private citizens will be able to provide enough help for those who are on the move?

Mr. BRACK: Well, I'm glad you mentioned that. These people, they're call - they would be called Pakaans(ph). It's group which is actually famous for solidarity and tribal loyalties. So in fact we know that the overwhelming majority of displaced people have been taken in by relatives and friends, and the authorities themselves have announced they'll be giving about $65, I think, if you convert it into dollars - to help tide these people over. As I said, the concern of the ICRC is not only on the material conditions but mainly the protection of the civilian population.

INSKEEP: Sebastian Brack is a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross. He spoke with us from Islamabad, Pakistan.

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