New aid crisis in Pakistan
The Pakistani government has blocked food aid to war-torn Balochistan.
Pakistan's military government is preventing aid groups from helping more than 80,000 people – many of them acutely malnourished children – who have been displaced by a widening civil war in remote southern Balochistan, say international aid workers and diplomats.Skip to next paragraph
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An internal assessment by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), shown to the Monitor, paints a disturbing portrait.
UNICEF and Pakistan provincial health officials, who surveyed the area in July and August, report that 59,000 of those suffering are women and children and that 28 percent of the children under 5 were "acutely malnourished." Six percent of the children were so underfed that they would die without immediate medical attention.
"I would say this now qualifies as a 'crimes against humanity' situation," says one foreign observer who has interviewed delegates from the region.
For six months, aid agencies and diplomats have been pressing Pakistan authorities to permit them to distribute aid packages, which include emergency rations, tents, and medicine. The UN won't deliver aid without permission from the host nation, says Robert van Dijk, the top UNICEF officer for Pakistan.
He and other aid workers say provincial officials have continued to assist his local staff in monitoring conditions in southern Balochistan, but more senior provincial and federal officials have simply refused his requests or derailed efforts with endless bureaucratic hurdles.
"We have tried everything to get our aid there," says Mr. van Dijk. "I even know of aid groups that tried to deliver relief without permits, but they got turned back on the road."
Meanwhile, reports from the region indicate the situation has grown even more wretched with the onset of winter.
Pakistani authorities have dismissed the UNICEF report as overblown, saying the majority of people in Balochistan were already dirt-poor and nomadic, and that most of those displaced by fighting returned home after an important rebel leader was killed in August.
"This report is untrue," said Maj. Gen. Shaukut Sultan, a spokesman for the military. "Almost all of those people have gone back."
Van Dijk agrees that some did return home in September, but says a recent UN assessment showed that other villagers have since been displaced.
"When we went back there recently, we found the same numbers of people," he says, "and even worse conditions – among the worst I've ever seen."
Villagers are caught in a conflict between the government and rebel tribesmen, who took up arms last year to demand greater autonomy for the Baloch people and a larger share of the resources in the gas-rich, sparsely populated province.
Vast Balochistan makes up 40 percent of Pakistan's land area, but is home to only 4 percent of its 170 million people. Because of federal formulas that dole out development funding for roads, schools, and hospitals based on population alone, the impoverished province lags far behind other parts of the country in development and social indicators.
The homelands of the rebel Bugti and Marri tribes sit atop rich oil and gas fields the government wants to exploit.
Their struggle has remained largely out of view of the global media, which focuses instead on Islamabad's wavering efforts to root out the Taliban and Al Qaeda along the Afghan border.
But it's grown into a major conflict – and a major challenge for President Pervez Musharraf, who has dispatched thousands of paramilitary troops to put down the rebellion. During 2006, the rebel tribesmen bombed civilian buses, rocketed military bases, and attacked gas pipelines.
In August, a Pakistani military operation killed one of the main rebel leaders, 79-year-old tribal chief Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti. On Tuesday, a former lieutenant of Mr. Bugti, who surrendered to the government in June in return for amnesty, was killed by a land mine.