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

Pakistanis rally to support war-affected populations

ICHRIAN, Pakistan (Reuters) - It was a chicken farm

Majid Khan, 27, an internally displaced man, who recently fled a military offensive against the Taliban in nearby Chargar, ties his tent atop a vehicle with his other belongings while preparing to go back to his village in Swari Camp, located in Buner district August 23, 2009.REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

until hundreds of Pakistanis fleeing a military offensive against the Taliban arrived in April looking for refuge.

Moved by their plight, the villagers in Ichrian cleaned out the sheds and converted the poultry farm into a camp for the displaced, providing everything from food and water to electricity.

The bereft families say they are lucky to have been met with such hospitality from a community where people eke out a meager living from the land.

Stories like this are mirrored across the north of the country where ordinary Pakistanis rallied to help in one of the biggest internal displacements in recent times.

Around 2.3 million people were forced to live in camps and with host communities — dependent on the authorities and aid agencies for handouts — as government forces continue their battle against Taliban fighters in North West Frontier Province.

While many of the displaced have returned home, hundreds of thousands remain, too fearful to go back.

Relief agencies and the government have been at the forefront in responding to this crisis, but aid workers say the contribution made by ordinary Pakistanis — many of whom themselves earn modest incomes — has been extraordinary.

The public’s contribution should not be overlooked, said Muhammad Asar ul Haq, country program director for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). Even those who have nothing gave generously.

“TOMATOES AND TRANSFORMERS”

In Ichrian, about 120 km (75 miles) northwest of Islamabad, thousands of villagers came forward to donate whatever they could during the past three months.

Some supplied tomatoes, others gave onions while others tried to provide some manual labor to displaced men so they could have a little cash.

“When people started coming, I saw how bad their situation was so I decided to provide my farm as a shelter,” said Ahmed Yar Khan, owner of the poultry farm and now the camp manager.

“We cleaned out the poultry sheds, separated the areas with plastic sheeting to give each family some privacy, and we even bought transformers and established electricity for them.”

Stories of how people donated their jewelry and other personal items abound. Khan estimates up to 10,000 people in the area provided something to support the displaced.

Villagers in Ichrian have also tried to bring a sense of normality by starting a school, building a small mosque and even holding a cricket tournament.

Aid workers from the IFRC, which has helped support the camp, say host communities have sheltered almost 90 percent of the displaced either in their homes or within schools and other public buildings.

“THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS”

But public support for the displaced has not been confined just to areas where they have sought refuge.

Pakistanis from all walks of life — students, civil servants, traders, aid workers and businessmen — have collected money between friends and families and bought items such as water coolers, fans, pulses and rice to distribute in camps and within host communities.

A group of medical students from a university in Islamabad got together and traveled to the area and set up a health camp, giving consultations and providing basic medicines.

Public appeals for donations have been launched, not just by government and aid agencies, but also by corporate and private citizens.

Slideshow (3 Images)

The Pakistan Red Crescent Society alone has received contributions worth around $1.5 million in cash and in kind from the public since the crisis began.

The displaced say they are overwhelmed by the response of Pakistanis, often from other regions and ethnic groups.

“They don’t know us and some speak a different language ... but these people who we thought were strangers have actually turned out to be our family,” said one elderly man as he sat with his infant grandson in front of a chicken shed that has become his home.

Editing by Jerry Norton

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