ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Thousands of people displaced by war in northern Pakistan are unlikely to be able to return home before March next year, the head of the United Nations humanitarian operation said on Thursday.
About 2.3 million people were forced from their homes by fighting in the northwest, most after government forces launched an offensive against Taliban militants in Swat in April, creating one of the largest internal displacements in recent times.
Languishing in overcrowded camps or sheltering with host families, the internally displaced have been living a hand-to-mouth existence, dependent on aid agencies for everything from food and water to clothes and shelter.
Manuel Bessler, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that while about 1.3 million people had returned home to various districts including Swat, others would stay in camps or with families because of fighting.
“I am afraid that we will still have displaced people over the winter. The large majority, yes, can go home and it is important that they resume their lives,” Bessler told Reuters in an interview.
“But there is still a portion of people that will stay displaced but if we don’t have any other major emergencies, it should be OK by spring.”
The government has widespread public support for the offensive against the militants, but this could dwindle if the displaced are seen to be suffering though the winter.
The humanitarian operation, which has mobilized hundreds of aid workers from scores of aid agencies to respond to the crisis, is moving from its emergency phase to short-term “recovery” help for people going home.
But Bessler said even when the displaced get home, they will need support in trying to rebuild their livelihoods as many farmers were unable to harvest their crops and have lost their annual income.
Many schools, which both militants and soldiers used as bases, have been destroyed and there is a pressing need to furnish hospitals and clinics with basic health equipment, medicine and staff.
Aid workers say that the Swat Valley — which has borne the brunt of the crisis — was under Taliban control for about two years and law enforcement and civil administration now needs to be re-established.
But Bessler said donors were not responding to funding the early recovery projects, adding that only 3 percent of the $54 million needed for that phase of the relief operation had materialized.
With the worst of the fighting in Swat over, and people heading home from the camps, raising money was getting more difficult.
“The public face of this crisis are the displaced in the camps, are the displaced queuing up for food, so its relatively easier to raise funds for food and shelter,” he said.
“Early recovery is a much more difficult sell.”
He said a “Friends of Pakistan” meeting of aid donors in Istanbul on August 24 — which will bring together a host of nations and multilateral donors — would focus on mobilizing funds for rehabilitation and reconstruction.
Editing by Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson