As Pakistanis flee Army offensive, militant-run charities jump in with aid
The government has been ill-prepared to help the more than half-million internal refugees fleeing a military campaign in North Waziristan. Some worry aid camps run by militants could be recruiting grounds.
Bannu, Pakistan — Bazid Khan has stood in line to enter a government relief camp for eight hours. With no shade above, and temperatures reaching almost 120 degrees F., his patience runs thin by 3 p.m.
“They will close down at five and I will have to come back again tomorrow. This has been happening with me for the last two days,” he says as he waits at a sports complex turned aid distribution point in this city of Bannu, bordering North Waziristan.
Mr. Khan is one of more than a half million residents of North Waziristan who have fled the Pakistan Army's military offensive in this tribal belt that borders Afghanistan. For the past two weeks, ever since an audacious attack on the country's biggest airport in Karachi, the military has pounded the area with air strikes. Today, the Army announced the start of a ground offensive, which aims to wipe out anti-Pakistan militants.
The displacement of 500,000 of the 600,000 residents in North Waziristan has created a logistical nightmare for the government. As the government struggles to handle the mass of internally displaced persons, charitable arms of militant groups are emerging as the quickest and best organized in caring for the displaced. That worries people like Khadim Hussain, the head of the Bacha Khan Educational Trust Foundation, which works on development issues in the tribal belt and the adjacent province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
“These groups are being used to penetrate into the [displaced] population since those fleeing are currently vulnerable and therefore can be easily recruited and brainwashed for jihadi purposes,” he says.
As Khan stands in line, a young volunteer from a different camp nearby is busily serving those waiting. With a bucket of water in one hand, and food packets to give out, the volunteer ensures that everyone there is looked after. Policemen holding guns and sticks and patrolling by the line don't appear interested in stopping him.
But the volunteer does not work for the government. Instead, his green neon jacket, emblazoned with the initials FIF, links him to the Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation, a charitable arm of the group Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD). Earlier in June, the United States designated the JuD as a terrorist organization. It is accused of orchestrating the Mumbai attack in 2008 that left 166 people dead.
"They are our Muslim brothers and we are doing this for Allah," says Mohammad Sarfaraz, the organizer at the FIF relief camp. "This is an opportunity to win their hearts. The government is failing at doing so, but we will not." That camp has 25 ambulances on standby and more than 200 volunteers spread out in Bannu distributing aid.
"We have started a nationwide campaign to collect charity at different camp sites we have organized across the country," Mr. Sarfaraz says.
Those who have fled the Army attack in North Waziristan are reluctant to talk about whether they support the military offensive. About 20 families interviewed for this story declined to say whether they thought the operation was a positive or negative step for the country. Militant groups including the Pakistani Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the Haqqani network have long used the region as a base from which to attack both Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistan's newspaper Dawn described the refugees as caught in "mental agony" after "living in a hostage-like situation" in the tribal region.
'We need to help our Muslim brothers'
JuD is not the only such group at the forefront of this humanitarian crisis. Around 1,500 feet from the sports complex is the camp of Masood Azhar’s banned militant organization Jaish-e-Mohammad. The relief camp has a banner that displays Mr. Azhar’s name and the name of Al-Rehmat Foundation, which is known to be the operational front for this banned militant organization.
There is a line at this relief camp, with families waiting for their turn for a medical checkup.
“My son has diarrhea. I went to the local hospital but there were too many people so instead I came here,” says Mehad, who recently left North Waziristan, as the camp organizers hand him the prescribed medicines.
“We are the soldiers of Allah and we need to help our Muslim brothers. We are providing medicines, food, and other relief goods to [displaced persons] from three different points in Bannu city,” says Omar Ayub, an organizer at the camp.
When asked what his organization’s role is otherwise, he openly states that it is involved in militant activities in Afghanistan and Kashmir.
Located on the outskirts of Bannu city, a government-run shelter camp is almost deserted, with around 250 people staying there. The location chosen by the government to set up the camp is known to be infested with deadly reptiles like snakes and scorpions, and the facilities provided to the newcomers are bare minimum.
“I killed three scorpions myself last night. Also, they have given us no mattresses or beds to sleep on and the ground is rocky,” says Mohammad Khaliq, who escaped with six family members from North Waziristan. "If I had the money to afford a house on rent, I would have left this camp."
Indeed, many of the displaced are living with locals elsewhere who have provided them temporary shelters at schools, houses, and even factories. The military official, who manages media visits to the camp, shrugs off the lack of facilities as a reason for the low occupancy at the camp. “The North Waziristan people are quite rich and that is why they are not coming to this camp and renting out their own places,” the official says.
The government is giving out monthly ration packages with a $120 cash disbursement to each family. Recently, the prime minister also announced a $400 dollar one-time Ramadan package of goods like flour, sugar, oil, that can be collected at the government-run camps. In addition to the government shelter camp, there are three government-run aid distribution centers in Bannu.
Despite religious extremist organizations being able to operate in the area, local nongovernmental organizations, especially those of a secular nature, are not being allowed to help the fleeing public, according to officials in those NGOs.
“The government is asking us to apply for certificates [from the interior ministry] which is just a way to create hurdles, while such extremist organizations like Jamat-ud-Dawa and Jaish-e-Mohammad are being allowed to operate without any checks and balance," says Mr. Hussain of the Bacha Khan Educational Trust Foundation.