Pakistan's offensive opens new forum for militants: refugee camps

Religious charities with extremist ties or sympathies are winning favor among displaced people for their speedy aid work.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    A displaced Pakistani man holds his son next to a banner forbidding weapons in Shah Mansour refugee camp, in northwest Pakistan, June 9. Up to 3 million people have fled the fighting and the exodus has raised fears of a humanitarian crisis.
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Clearing out Islamic hard-liners is tough enough on the battlefield. Yet even as Pakistan's Army wraps up operations to clear the Taliban from Swat Valley, religious groups with militant ties or sympathies have set up shop among the war's refugees – and are winning popular support with their truckloads of aid.

Among the organizations providing relief is the Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF), the charity wing of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the banned militant group blamed for last November's Mumbai (Bombay) attacks.

The militants' focus on aid efforts has raised concerns among some analysts that such groups may find recruits or sympathizers among the 2 million people displaced by the military's offensive – the majority of whom live outside government-run camps.

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"No doubt, they are doing a good job, but their agenda is something else," says retired Brig. Gen. Mahmood Shah, a retired security analyst based in Peshawar. "They might create more support for the Taliban in the IDP [internally displaced person] camps," he argues.

Another concern is that "the organizations have a large number of Taliban sympathizers, and the militants might use the camps as their hiding places with their support," Mr. Shah continues, suggesting that such groups be banned from working there. Some hand out pamphlets along with their relief supplies.

But other experts dismiss the threat of militant recruitment. "Many people in villages have sympathy with Taliban, but they don't take up arms," says Yousaf Ali, a Peshawar-based security analyst. "The religious charities must be appreciated for doing this great service."

FIF was renamed from Jamaat-ud-Dawa after the government banned JuD following the Mumbai attacks. FIF denies having any link to the banned group or to having a jihadist agenda.

Thousands of pounds of rice a day

FIF's workers prepare thousands of pounds of rice daily and distribute it to IDPs living in schools and hujras (community centers) and with host families. According to deputy chairman Mian Adil, in one month, the organization has handed out 1 million meals.

In addition to giving out food, some 2,000 FIF men and women – most of them volunteers – have provided health services and conducted surveys on where refugees live and what they need.

The group is getting donations from Pakistani businesspeople and expatriates, says Mr. Adil.

Another religious organization conducting relief operations in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) is Al-Khidmat, an organization that runs hospitals in several Pakistani cities and serves as the social-services wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, a political party sympathetic to the Taliban.

In a village called Hathyan, Al-Khidmat volunteers recently went door to door, handing out food and utensils. Local youths and families hosting refugees helped distribute the aid packages.

The group has so outshone the secular party governing NWFP, the Awami National Party, that some of the party's members have switched allegiances.

Mabaris Hamdard, who fled fighting in Buner district and now lives with a host family in Mardan, says his son burned his ANP membership card in protest.

"My son was president of the student wing of the party back in Buner, but joined the Al-Khidmat Foundation to become a volunteer," says Mr. Hamdard, a poet.  

Says Hazir Gul, a resident of Swat and an official with Disaster Response Network, a secular nongovernmental organization: "Unlike the secular parties, both Al-Khidmat and JuD have a network of volunteers on the level of union councils, tehsils, districts, and the province."

"It was not difficult for them to reach to every family quickly as the crisis emerged," continues Mr. Gul, who is also involved in aid work.

No ID card? No government aid.

While private charities are quickly delivering food and medicine, the government has a bigger burden: trying to provide more aid, such as temporary shelter and cash handouts. It will soon also have to help facilitate resettling the refugees, after Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar said Friday they could begin returning home over the weekend.

For now, in the camps, a lengthy procedure for registration and distributing aid has frustrated IDPs. Lack of coordination among different government and United Nations agencies has also delayed the process.

Some people complain about corruption, accusing government officials of demanding bribes before issuing registration or ration cards.

The UN has only about 30 percent of the $543 million it requested in May to aid Pakistani IDPs. "Our resources are limited, and we are only reaching a fraction of those whom we would like to reach," said Martin Mogwanja, the top UN humanitarian coordinator in the country.

Meanwhile, IDPs are running low on cash. Nek Amal, a schoolteacher from Mingora, the main town in Swat, says he's run out after one month in Jalala Camp. His wife recently gave birth to their child in their tent.

"I can't even buy powdered milk for the child or some soft food for the mother," says Mr. Amal, who blames the government for his family's displacement.

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SIDEBAR

Islamic organizations in Pakistan have long won praise for delivering aid fast – especially during a massive earthquake in October 2005 that killed 87,000 people.

In addition to Falah-e-Insaniyat (formerly Jamaat-ud-Dawa), the disaster shone a spotlight on other Islamic aid groups such as Al-Khidmat, Khubaib Foundation, Islamic Relief, and Helping Hands.

During a 6.4-magnitude earthquake in Balochistan Province last October, JuD and Al-Khidmat were the first to reach victims in the southwestern region's remotest villages.

The two groups, along with other religious charities, also provided quick relief during a flood last year in Peshawar that affected more than half a million people.

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