Hundreds of thousands of once prosperous Pakistani villagers are stranded in freezing tented refugee camps after being compelled to leave home by their own forces in a ferocious battle against the Taliban along the Afghan border.
Yesterday 300,000 Pakistani men, women and children, many of them driven from farms in the Bajaur region, were sheltering in eight makeshift camps on the outskirts of their nearest city, Peshawar.
In one of the camps, Sheikh Yassin, home to 13,000 newly displaced Pakistanis, five children died of hypothermia on one night last week. They had been weakened by diarrhoea rife among children in the camp, which has no sanitation.
Aid officials had hoped to transfer some refugees to Jalozai, an area near Peshawar that was once an Afghan refugee camp, but on Friday they had to abandon their plans because of security concerns.
“The level of displacement is unprecedented in Pakistan,” said Mohammed Adar, the beleaguered head of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Peshawar.
Adar had to suspend all movement of his international staff on Friday after three days of attacks by militants on foreigners that included the murder of a US aid worker, the kidnapping of diplomats and the shooting of two journalists.
Gul Noor, a 70-year-old grandmother, squatted outside her threadbare tent surrounded by her grandchildren.
“It’s so cold here, I sleep on the ground in the tent,” she said, speaking by telephone from the camp. “I sold the blankets I was given to buy some flour. I never imagined I would end up living like this.”
Her family are farmers in a village called Ghundai which, she said, had been attacked without warning: “It was evening and I was sitting outside the house when a missile was fired into my brother’s house, a few doors away. For the first few minutes we hid behind the wall of our house, then we started to run.”
She described a scene of carnage: “I saw a woman who was hit by something. She fell to the ground. She was dead. I saw another in pieces. Now I keep seeing people when I close my eyes . . . I saw children who were in many pieces.”
Families such as Gul Noor’s have been caught up in intensive bombing by the Pakistan air force on villages in the Bajaur region suspected of harbouring Taliban or Al-Qaeda members. Diplomats say there is little doubt that there are militant strongholds in the area, but the Pakistan army has made few inroads and the main victims seem to be local people.
Islamic Relief, the largest British Islamic charity, said yesterday that more people were walking into the camps from the conflict zone every day.
“Winter is setting in and the situation for these already desperate people is getting unbelievably worse,” said Shaista Aziz, an Islamic Relief worker from London. “Children are suffering. We’ve received reports that many have died.”
Raheem Gul, 34, who lives in a tent in the camp with his family, fled his village after a Pakistani jet attacked close to his house. “It was awful, the screaming jet,” he recalled. “I saw the bodies of the dead . . . some young men were killed and also a mother and a child.”