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The Toll of Indifference

In the Pakistani press the Swat assault is painted as a popular triumph. But it has come at a horrific cost

Kamila Shamsie

Almost every day the news out of Pakistan offers evidence of growing support for military action against the Taliban in Swat, and growing antipathy towards the Taliban itself. The rightwing media, which had urged the government to make peace deals, is falling over itself in praise of military advances.

But straightforward approval for military action is not the whole story. An article in one of Pakistan's papers a few days ago reported that tribesmen in Upper Dir had besieged 200 Taliban and killed a number in response to the Taliban's bombing of a mosque. The newspaper cited this as further evidence of growing anti-Taliban sentiment. There is no reason to doubt the tribesmen's genuine anger --yet near the end of the article there was a telling admission that cannot be left out of the picture: a tribal elder said that allowing the Taliban to stay was asking for trouble as it would invite a military offensive that they certainly didn't want.

This is where the story of wholehearted support for the military offensive breaks down. The army's success has come at a horrific cost: there are estimated to be 2.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Pakistan. Who can blame the tribesmen of Upper Dir for taking up arms to prevent the army from adding their families to the swelling numbers of IDPs? The editorials of relief and approval about the army's decision to "finally" do what is necessary contain the implicit message that the suffering of the 2.5 million is the price that must be paid. Around the world, leaders and opinion-makers have reached the same conclusion.

But what of the 2.5 million? When their numbers were less than half that amount just a few weeks ago the IDP camps could house less than 15 per cent of them. The rest had to rely on the kindness of relatives and the even more extraordinary kindness of strangers. Families with roofs over their heads have been taking in large numbers and sharing what little they have. Their generosity is shaming, particularly when placed against the horrifying indifference of the rest of the world a world that for months urged the Pakistan government to send its army into Swat and surrounding areas.

Nine major aid agencies --Action Aid, Cafod/Caritas, Care, Concern Worldwide, Islamic Relief, Merlin, Oxfam, Save the Children, World Vision -- issued a press release to say their aid projects face ­closure due to a shortage of funds. Oxfam will have to shut down its programme to assist 360,000 people if more funding doesn't arrive by next month. The United Nations is faring no better -- its $543m appeal has only received $138m so far. The United Kingdom has given only 1.6 per cent of the amount the UN requires.

A change in attitude is needed urgently; if humanitarian grounds aren't reason enough, consider the fact that refugee camps are prime targets for those trying to radicalise the disaffected. When the Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy was in the IDP camps earlier this year she found the young boys who make up such a large population of the camps equally split between those who support the army and those who support the Taliban. A vital "hearts and minds" battle is being waged in the camps, where groups such as the extremist Jamaat-ud-Dawa (linked to the Mumbai attacks) have been very visible in giving aid.

Many in Pakistan who still oppose military action are likely to claim that "the west" is pressurising the army to kill and displace its own people, uncaring of the suffering it causes. Time now for "the west" to show a different face to those who are desperate for assistance, and will not forget where it comes from.

Kamila Shamsie is a writer who divides her time between London and Karachi.


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