August 24, 2009 / 12:22 PM / 10 years ago

Aid workers hit hard by Pakistan's "asymmetrical" war

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Aid workers in Pakistan face serious risks to their lives as they attempt to respond to the needs of over two million people who have been affected by the war against Taliban militants, relief agencies said on Monday.

Pakistani security officials examine a damaged vehicle at the site of a bomb blast on the outskirts of Peshawar August 22, 2009. REUTERS/Ali Imam

In a conflict where government forces are battling to rid northwest Pakistan of militants, aid workers are seen as a high-value, yet easy target for kidnappings and killings as most travel into the insecure areas with no armed escorts in a bid to maintain their neutrality.

Since a military offensive began in April, a U.N. worker has been shot dead in a displacement camp and five others killed when militants bombed a well-known hotel in Peshawar, the main city in North West Frontier Province.

Relief agencies say security fears are impacting their ability to work effectively and deliver services to families who have been forced to leave their homes due to the fighting.

“This is an asymmetrical war, where there are no rules and anything can happen at anytime,” said Muhammad Asar ul Haq, country program director for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

“An attack, even if it is small, can really affect the big picture and aid agencies have to constantly review whether they can continue to work in such a climate.”

EMAIL, SMS THREATS

According to a recent report by the London-based Overseas Development Institute, attacks are increasingly politically motivated, especially in places like Pakistan, where aid agencies are perceived to be part of a Western agenda.

Relief workers say they try to keep a low-profile in Islamabad, as well as when traveling outside.

“Several agencies have received threats either by letter, email or text messages saying that they will be targeted,” said one aid worker.

“Sometimes the threat says they will be bombed if they open their office on a certain day, or that they are targets because their female staff do not conform to ultra-conservative traditional beliefs,” she said.

In the quiet, tree-lined avenues of Islamabad, locating an aid agency office without a house number can be difficult.

Their offices are scattered in residential areas with no signs advertising their presence.

Aid workers mostly use regular saloon vehicles rather than the polished 4X4 cars normally used by humanitarian workers in other countries.

Most international agencies have a standard operating procedure where security is reviewed on a daily basis and those traveling into the field keep regular radio contact with their head office, constantly updating them on their whereabouts.

Both male and female workers are expected to dress conservatively and behave according to the norms of the community they are visiting, in order to ensure protection and acceptance.

IMPACT ON AID WORK

Aid workers say the security situation is so fluid — where areas which have been declared safe, suddenly see militant activity again — often making it very difficult to reach trapped civilians and provide necessary relief.

The IFRC shut down an office in Besham town in Shangla district which had a mobile health unit serving around 600 people a week, during a heavy military build-up in the area in April.

The U.N. said it has difficulty carrying out assessments — a prerequisite before any aid can be given to affected communities — in some areas because of the security risks.

Last month, a U.N. worker was shot dead as he walked to his car after visiting Kacha Garrii camp for displaced people in Peshawar district.

As a result, some agencies have withdrawn or limited the movement of their international staff. Consequently, Pakistani staff are taking on more responsibilities.

But most say, despite the risks, they have to continue their activities.

“We pulled our staff out of the clinic in Kacha Garrii, but they requested to go back to work after 24 hours,” said Patrick Parsons, operations coordinator for Merlin, a health-based relief agency.

“After walking for days, with no clean water and food, people need the facilities to be fully staffed and equipped. If we hide behind armed guards and high barbed wire fencing, no one will come.”

Editing by Jeremy Laurence

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