- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 14, 2009

In a matter of weeks after last month’s exodus began, about 2 million Pakistanis - more than half of them children - became homeless, according to U.N. estimates. An intensifying conflict, encroaching on the villages and valleys of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), spurred a harrowing exodus, with poor families forced to walk overland for days to reach safety.

Their plight is all the more difficult as families have sought refuge where they could. Most are living in the modest homes of relatives, friends and even strangers, eschewing the tent camps established for them.

Wakeel’s story is typical. He, his wife, two daughters and 12 other people are staying in a distant relative’s one-room house in a remote village in Swabi district. They left with the clothes on their backs and made the 25-mile trek over the mountains. They had to leave his parents behind, as the parents were too frail to make the trip.

The family arrived with little money and fewer prospects for work. The head of their host family is a laborer and can barely afford to feed them all. Wakeel says he does not know when they can return home or if home still exists.

Save the Children recently surveyed more than 300 households in two NWFP districts housing large numbers of displaced people. Agency staff found that few families - just 17 percent - were planning to move within the next month, and only slightly more than half of them were planning to return home.

The survey, conducted the last week of May, also found that the average displaced family numbers more than 10 people yet has just one room in which to live.

People surveyed said the stresses of displacement and overcrowding are contributing to health issues, particularly for children. Nearly 80 percent of households reported facing some health problems after displacement, with more than half of families reporting diarrhea as the most common illness suffered. Untreated diarrhea is a leading killer of children in the developing world.

The very young and old remain the most vulnerable among displaced family members.

Gulzarina, 10, told doctors at a Save the Children clinic that she has not felt well since she and 19 members of her extended family fled the fighting. They are all living in a one-room house under extremely poor conditions.

“The doctor was a nice lady and carefully listened to my problem, which I had been complaining of for a long time,” said Gulzarina. “Had it not been for the clinic giving me medicine, I am sure my parents would not have been able to get it for me, as we cannot afford it right now.”

Save the Children is working to assist families living outside of established camps, providing essential household items, health services and child-friendly spaces.

“Our discussions with displaced parents and children highlight the increasingly vulnerable position they find themselves in with regard to health, livelihoods, protection and educational opportunities,” said Ned Olney, Save the Children’s vice president for global humanitarian response. “The fact that they cannot return home soon is putting their hosts at risk as well. Outside assistance is critical for helping families through this displacement and the long journey home.”

For a list of U.S. humanitarian agencies, including Save the Children, that are assisting displaced families in Pakistan, go to www.interaction.org.

Kate Conradt, a D.C. resident who has traveled extensively in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan for the global humanitarian agency Save the Children, has been in daily contact with the agency’s Pakistani staff as it responds to the current humanitarian crisis.

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