Page last updated at 08:45 GMT, Wednesday, 13 May 2009 09:45 UK

Pakistan's 'displaced deluge'

SRSP truck in northern Pakistan
It has been a challenging time for the Sarhad programme

Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing fighting in Pakistan's north-west as the army continues its operation to eliminate Taleban militants. Aftab Ahmad, a programme development manager for the Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP) in northern Pakistan, describes how it is coping with the exodus.

While I was used to working with people who became victims of war and were forced to leave their homes over the past few months, I was not prepared for what I saw on 10 May.

We had put up transition centres in five locations to receive people who were likely to move out of Swat as a result of the military action against Taleban insurgents.

I was at the Jalala Centre set up near the Jalala Camp on the main Malakand road with my team.

But then came the deluge, there was a sea of humanity.

They came in all kinds of vehicles. Some rode on the roof tops of buses and trucks, many on rickshaws, some on bicycles and many just walked.

Children had become hysterical - crying endlessly - and everyone was in a trauma not knowing when the shells would hit them

A curfew had been lifted from 0900 to 1300 in Malakand and Swat.
The law enforcers could not re-impose the curfew until late at night because it was impossible to keep the people inside who were fleeing to safety.

The road down from the Malakand Pass usually carries little traffic and it seemed normal till 1600.

Some carried bundles of spinach, a child carried his family's only hen, some had their goat and sheep with them. Most had nothing.

I saw an entire family riding in three small auto rickshaws, nine in each. It normally carries three people.

Taleban militants in northern Pakistan
Militancy has made it harder to deliver development

They rarely ply outside a city but today rickshaws were crossing the Malakand pass.

One old man had blisters all over his hand driving a rickshaw.

Another individual had paid 18,000 rupees ($224) to hire a truck from Mingora to Shergarh, which in normal days would cost him 3,000 rupees ($37).

The double-lane road had been converted into a four-lane road with all traffic moving in one direction.

At the transition centre we provided energy drinks and information regarding the registration of displaced people.

The centres also provided a space where weary people could rest and re-energise themselves before they move to the next destination.

We had arranged vehicles to transport them because the rented vehicles wanted to go back from where they came to continue their business.

It was at 0230 that we finally sent the last family to the camps and our staff were able to return their hostel. It was a story repeated endlessly over the next few days.

'Shrieks and howls'

Many of those forced to move have colourful stories.

Liaqat was a barber in the small town of Barikot. He was doing well for his family until recently.

But a few months back his business closed down as shaving was declared an unacceptable business. He had no intention of leaving Barikot.

But as the military action started and the firing of guns grew louder - along with the shrieks and howls of terrified people - it became impossible for him and his family to live there any longer.

Children had become hysterical - crying endlessly - and everyone was in a trauma not knowing when the shells would hit them.

Like many others, he decided on the spur of the moment to leave as he could not take it anymore.

He did not have a penny in his pocket. His neighbour helped him move out with his family in his old car.

After a seven-hour gruelling journey he ended up in our transit centre at Jalala.

He was informed where he needed to go to get his registration, which camp would have a place for him and where the distribution point was for food and medical supplies.

For these small mercies, Liaqat was relieved. He said he had no idea where he was heading once he decided to flee for and his journey had been in deep apprehension over the future.

I am proud that we were at least able to provide him with some help.


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