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PAKISTAN TELLS QUAKE VICTIMS TO CLEAR OUT OF RELIEF CAMPS

by Muddassir Rizvi

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(IPS) BALAKOT -- The Pakistan government has come under scathing criticism from relief organizations for its recent decision to close down relief camps for the survivors of the massive earthquake last year which killed close to 73,000 people.

Twenty five camps in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and five in Pakistan administered Kashmir were closed by Apr. 9. The residents were left with no option but to return to devastated villages, still without basic facilities and housing.


The Oct. 8 earthquake, 7.6 on the Richter scale, collapsed mountains, altered the course of waterways and reduced entire villages to rubble. Some 400,000 houses were destroyed. Most roads, schools and hospitals in the affected areas either collapsed or are unusable.

The government wants the villagers to help with reconstruction. "We are moving out of the relief phase. People must go to their homes to aid official efforts to rebuild the infrastructure and communities," said a spokesman for the NWFP Relief Commissioner.

But the uprooted villagers are obviously very anxious. "I don't know how we will survive in our village," said Haleema Shahnaz, as she looked in the general direction of her devastated village tucked away in the mountains, north of Balakot, in the serene Kaghan valley.

"God saved my family in the earthquake, but we have nothing left back in the village. No house, no belongings, no business. What will we do? What will we live off?" asked the 35-year-old woman, a mother of three, whose husband works as a daily wage worker in Karachi.

Ali Deedar, who lost seven members of his family, said: ‘"We have been told by the army that we must return to our village soonest." Owner of a small store before the quake, he added: "The road that disappeared in the landslide has yet to be restored. We will just be trapped in our village."

A government notification has assured camp dwellers assistance to aid their return. They can take all their personal belongings and humanitarian help received so far like tents and blankets. "Family members will not be separated during the journey. Free transport will be provided for your animals," according to the notice.

But Salim Shah, who was on his way from a relief camp in Islamabad to his village in Rawalkot district, in Kashmir, complained that the police checked their luggage and let him take only four blankets. "They made us feel as if we were thieves," he said.

Families that return have been promized up to three months food rations, and money for the rebuilding of houses will be paid in instalments at various stages during the completion of the project.

But assessment and payment procedures have yet to be announced, confirmed an official at the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority, created to lead the post-disaster work.

Local relief organizations are concerned that the speed at which the camps have closed may have serious repercussions on the survivors.

Sarwar Bari, who heads the Pattan Development Organization which runs a small camp in Balakot, said: "We just couldn't understand the haste with which the government is closing down these camps. Most people are not ready to go back to their villages in the absence of basic facilities that were promized by the government."

Apart from the lack of basic infrastructure, many uprooted families have no livelihoods to go back to in their villages. Many victims do not own land, either to live on or to cultivate. Many who owned land have lost it under landslides. The authorities are yet to undertake a survey of the economic losses suffered by families.

"The government must first undertake an extensive study to understand the conditions of the internally displaced people before forcing them to return. Its decisions are not research-based and will lead to massive and unmanageable urban migration," warned Bari.

In the aftermath of the quake, an estimated 150,000 people poured into some 150 relief camps that were set up by the government. Several other camps had sprouted up independently or by non government organizations.

Six months later, "more than 64,000 earthquake survivors have left relief camps for home," according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Some 86,750 people remain in over 120 camps with 50 or more tents.

Although the government says that the returns are voluntary, relief workers suggest otherwise. "People are being pushed out from camps in Balakot. Until a week ago army men were literally threatening people to leave, but after some local resistance, they are now polite at least," said Ikram Abid, who is managing a small camp here.

Families that have resisted moving are being shifted to Kashtra, a camp near Garhi Dupatta, 25 km from here. "There aren't many ‘involuntary' returns," said Abid. "Most of those who are leaving have been told that they will not get any relief goods in existing camps," he explained.

The UNHCR has told the Pakistan to ensure that repatriations are not forced. "Returns must be informed and voluntary," said UNHCR's representative in Pakistan, Guenet Guebre-Christos, in a statement issued in Islamabad.

An atmosphere of uncertainty looms large. "People rightly feel unsure about their future as they have been excluded from decisions that are going to shape their future," said Paree Gul, an elected councilor from the reserved women's seat in northern Batagram district.



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Albion Monitor   April 20, 2006   (http://www.albionmonitor.com)

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