Sultan Mahmood is an aid worker with Islamic Relief in Pakistan and last week he travelled to Swat as part of the assessment team. In this article he shares his experiences from Swat and the problems faced by the people who are gradually returning home.
“After months of conflict, we were finally able to travel to Swat to assess the damage and the needs of the people who have begun to return. Swat is an area I know well as my family are originally from the region. Travelling back for the first time since the fighting began I believe that progress in Swat has gone back ten years. Mingora used to be the busy shopping centre for the whole of the Malakand division; now the shops are empty and the markets deserted.
Swat is a very fertile region and there should be no reason for people to be suffering from food shortages. But I spoke to many people who had recently returned to their homes and did not have even basic food items.
More than 90 per cent of the population of Lower Swat fled their homes during the fighting. Few were able to return to harvest their crops which they have now been lost for this season. As we drove through Lower Swat we passed the orchards from which many people in the region make their living. There were fields of peach and plum trees whose fruit has gone to waste because farmers were unable to come back and pick them.
The farmers were also unable to plant rice for the coming season, which means that the next harvest is also likely to be severely reduced. People have been told by the government not to plant maize which is one of the staple crops of this region as it grows high and can be used to hide militants. This has affected people’s ability to feed themselves as well as having a long term impact on their livelihoods.
Although the majority of Lower Swat has been declared ‘clear,’ a curfew is still in operation so all the shops that weren’t damaged or destroyed are still closed, which is exacerbating the problem of food shortages. Men who owned businesses, who were shopkeepers or labourers spoke with frustration of not being able to work and earn a living because of the curfew. While they are relieved to finally have returned home, they feel they are in limbo and that there is little they can do improve their present condition.
All the villages we visited bore the scars of the conflict. Some houses had been reduced to rubble while others were seriously damaged. But the biggest affect has been on the education sector. In Lower Swat virtually all the government schools have been completely destroyed and when the new school year starts in September thousands of children will find they have nowhere to study. There is an urgent need for emergency shelters that can be used as classrooms as well as educational materials.
On the roads we saw many people with their few possessions on foot or on the back of trucks making the arduous journey back to their villages. It seems like only yesterday that these people were fleeing in the other direction; I cannot believe that three months have passed so quickly.
Many of the people who are still living with host families in Mardan told me that they had travelled back and forth between their homes over the last few weeks to assess the damage and to see whether it was safe enough for their families to return. They were scared because they had been told that there were still militants in the area and feared future attacks. What they did not want was to have to leave their homes yet again.
We estimate that around 50 per cent of the people fled Lower Swat have now returned to their homes. The rest are likely to come back before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan that begins in late August.
The people that have gone back to Lower Swat are very worried about their situation. They are wary that the conflict may erupt once again and are waiting for the help they need to rebuild their lives. I hope this help comes soon so they can start Ramadan with a much needed sense of hope and optimism.