ICHRIAN, Pakistan (Reuters) - As the Muslim month of Ramadan begins, tens of thousands of Pakistanis forced to flee their homes by war against the Taliban will have no choice but to languish in camps or host families over the religious period.
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.
While many have managed to return home after the military cleared most of the former tourist valley in North West Frontier Province of militants, others still shelter in displacement camps and with communities, too fearful to go back home and restart their lives.
“Ramadan is the holiest period of the year for Muslims and it is a period of fasting, prayer and blessings,” said Mubashir Fida, communications officer for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
“It’s a tough time for the internally displaced people as they have endured so much over the last few months and had hoped to be back home for Eid as that is the time for family celebrations.”
During Ramadan, Muslims all over the world observe a dawn-to-dusk fast and refrain from anything considered an indulgence such as smoking. They aim to show patience, modesty and spirituality.
It culminates in Eid al-Fitr, a festival marking the end of fasting during which people go to their mosques for prayers and visit friends and family to exchange gifts.
But for many of Pakistan’s displaced people, it will be hard to observe the usual rituals associated with this period.
Sitting in a shed in a poultry farm converted to a camp, 35-year-old Bibi Amina laments having to spend Ramadan with her seven children and old parents under such circumstances.
“We are not happy to spend Ramadan here, we just want to go home and go back to our normal lives,” said Bibi, who fled from her village in Swat district when the army began air strikes against militants in the area.
“We have no choice but to stay here — my home was destroyed during the fighting, my children’s school no longer exists and I have no money to look after my family if I go back.”
The poultry farm in the village of Ichrian, 120 km (75 miles) northwest of Islamabad, accommodates about 300 people who live in sheds that once housed fowl.
Villagers in the area set up the camp and have been providing basic relief items to the displaced.
The IFRC together with the Pakistan Red Crescent Society have built latrines, provided clean water and are now holding psychosocial sessions for those traumatized by their experiences.
“It was awful when we first came here as there was nothing, just a shed for animals, and I thought this was a place for chickens, not humans,” said 25-year-old Mohammad Alam, who fled the town of Mingora with his wife three months ago.
“We want to go back for Eid, but we will have to spend Ramadan here without the family — it will be tough fasting under such circumstances and then festivities will not be anything like what we are used to.”
Two days before the start of Ramadan, women and girls in colorful head scarves gather in a makeshift prayer room, to recite verses from the Koran and offer prayers for everyone suffering as a result of the conflict.
The tarpaulin sheeting covering the open shed rustles noisily as a strong monsoon wind blows and the aroma of incense fills the room.
They offer prayers to Allah, asking him to bring peace to Pakistan and end their ordeal after living in fear under the Taliban for more than two years and then fleeing with nothing but the clothes on their back.
Even if the areas they came from are safe, the displaced say they will not consider returning until after Eid as making the long journey back and trying to reconstruct their homes and rebuild their lives while observing a fast will be too difficult.
“I have heard that my area is safe, but how can I expect my children and wife to endure the journey back and deal with seeing their home in ruins when they have not had any food or water all day?” said one man.
“We will have to stay - at least for the time being.”
Editing by Robert Birsel and Jerry Norton