"Only God knows what will happen to us"
Residents of a refugee camp destroyed by the monsoon try to rebuild their lives as UNHCR extends its assistance efforts across a flood-ravaged land.
AZKHEL VILLAGE, Pakistan, August 13 (UNHCR) - For 30 years, the Azkhel camp in north west Pakistan served as a welcome refuge for tens of thousands of refugees from the war in neighbouring Afghanistan. The settlement started as a cluster of makeshift tents but developed into a village with tea stalls, kebab sellers, fruit and vegetable shops and other small businesses.
"We came from the war in Afghanistan 30 years ago and made a life here," one resident, Naizbibi, who fled her homeland as an 11-year-old girl and who has since helped raise an extended family of 30 members in the camp, including children and grandchildren, told me this week.
Then came the worst floods in Pakistani history. The camp was flattened. The only building left standing is the community mosque. Everything is covered in a meter of thick, sticky, dark brown mud. Piles of wooden beams and other debris litter the jagged landscape. Naizbibi's family lost their home, their belongings and their livestock, including two cows, a calf and five goats. "We have only now the clothes on our backs," she told me, cradling a crying infant in her arms.
Naizbibi is among 300,000 people in Pakistan whom UNHCR has now reached with shelter or other supplies to help them cope with the massive flooding that has swept across the country. The family lived under a small tarpaulin slung between two trees until a few days ago but now has erected a UNHCR tent, one of 1,100 that the UN Refugee Agency has distributed along with other supplies such as quilts and mosquito nets to the Azkhel camp.
There is a lot of work still left to be done, however. Mosquitoes are everywhere and there is growing worry about disease. Many of the camps residents are still out in the open. "They are living," as one resident and community leader told me, " only for the mercy of God."
UNHCR is concerned with the basic needs, rights and well-being of everyone in Pakistan who has been displaced from their homes and who are now struggling to survive without sufficient community support structures. We are working with the authorities, UN and NGO partners to ensure that those needs are addressed. The provincial authorities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province report that 653 schools are currently occupied by people affected by the floods. Some schools have as many as 10 families per room. The safety of women and children in these crowded locations, including their health and potential sexual violence against them or other kinds of abuse is a serious concern.
We have established protection teams in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province focusing on the three hardest-hit districts, Nowshera, Charsadda and Peshawar. Similar efforts are underway in Balochistan province, which was first hit by the bloated rivers and where the vast distances between affected communities and our main logistics hub at Quetta hampers relief efforts - five of nine trucks that were dispatched from Peshawar a week ago are still trapped by landslides and flooding. Due to the lack of aid stockpiles in Balochistan, we are looking into airlifting supplies into the region.
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, refugee camps in 17 districts in the province have been overwhelmed by the flooding, erasing more than 12,600 homes and leaving 85,800 refugees homeless. Thousands of homes have been seriously damaged among both refugees and Pakistanis. These vulnerable, homeless refugees, many women, children and older persons, will be given priority to safe shelter and emergency food and medical help in coordination with our partners.
UNHCR staff took part Thursday in a government-organized helicopter assessment, flying over Mianwali in Punjab Province which has hosted more than 18,000 Afghan refugees for three decades, and also to Dera Ismail Khan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa which hosts some 300,000 displaced people from the conflict last year, as well as local Pakistanis. Vast areas are still under water, and the helicopter was unable to land in Multan due to continued flooding in the Punjab.
At Azakhel refugee camp, UNHCR has distributed 1,100 tents and non food items . We are also sending a further 1,000 tents to Swat, where our field team has been assessing needs among both internally displaced Pakistanis due to the conflict there and their host communities. We are working to fill gaps throughout the shelter cluster network of agencies and are also rushing aid to other areas of the country. One thousand UNHCR all-weather family tents have already been airlifted by authorities to Sukkar and Shikarpur in Sindh Province.
So far UNHCR has more than 17,000 tents and 43,700 sheets of plastic tarpaulin, 103,000 blankets and quilts, 59,000 sleeping mats, 60,000 jerry cans and buckets, 18,500 kitchen sets, 18 metric tons of soap and 25,000 mosquito nets.
We want to warn everyone that the crisis facing Pakistan is enormous and still unfolding. There continues to be massive destruction as bloated rivers flow southwards across the plains. And this crisis will not be over when the flood waters recede - due to homelessness, hunger and disease.
"Only God knows what will happen to us. It is still raining and we cannot make plans for the future," said Bibi Bacha Khan, 55, a widow who raised her children and grandchildren in Azakhel camp. UNHCR will continue to work hard to restore hope to millions like her now facing dire times in a devastated land.
By Ariane Rummery in Azakhel camp and Peter Kessler in Islamabad