On the edge of Peshawer, capital of the North West Frontier Province in Pakistan, lies a sea of white tents that is home to thousands of refugees who have been internally displaced as the Pakistani military carries out operations against so called terrorists in Bajour Agency in the region.
Since the summer, Pakistan has been waging a war against its own people as it collaborates with the American military. American attacks have targeted so-called terrorists on Pakistani soil, as it expands its field of operation from Afghanistan to the border regions of Pakistan. According to the UN 190,000 people have been displaced as a result of the fighting.
The site of the UNHCR refugee camp was previously occupied by Afghan refugees fleeing the NATO bombing of Afghanistan. The Afghan refugees have since moved on, spreading throughout Pakistan and the rest of the world, some have even returned to their homes in Afghanistan. The people who reside here now are Pakistani citizens.
The tribal areas have been the site of fierce fighting between the Pakistani army and so-called Islamists since former President Musharraf signed up to Washington’s agenda in the region to root out Taliban support and stop fighters crossing the border into Afghanistan and mounting guerrilla attacks on NATO forces.
The children that play in this maze of tents do not have adequate clothing for the harsh winter weather. Their faces are dirty with the brown dust that seems to permeate everything, as it is kicked up by donkey carts passing by. There are no toys, so the children play with anything they can get their hands on. Some of them use as wooden cart to pass the time, pushing it down a dirt road that separates the tents. Other children help with their family’s chores, washing dishes and carrying water. Still others can be seen collecting rubbish that they will use to earn money.
A metal mesh wire fence surrounds the camp, but sometimes the entrances are too far for the children to walk to, so they make holes in it, crawling through to gain access.
There is a cricket match taking place just outside the camp between children from the camp. Rocks are piled up as improvised wickets while the metal wire fence serves as the boundary. The game provides a distraction from the harsh reality of life in the refugee camp.
Residents of the camp voice their objections with the US and Pakistani government policy of bombing targets in the region. Ibrahim Khan says “The only people that were targeted by the military were civilians, women and children. We did not even see who was bombing us. They bombed us from the sky. I did not see any terrorists. Our homes were destroyed as we fled, we left everything, and now our children do not have adequate education and we have been left with no livelihood.” The people’s concerns here are for their children, “We want our children to gain an education. It will take 50 years before the psychological affects of our displacement are removed from these children’s minds. We have no grievances, grudges or problems with anyone, we are a peaceful people. We want to be able to live our lives. We are Muslims, terrorism is against our religion. This is our message to the Pakistani government and the International community. We want to go home. Stop this war that you have started. We are not terrorists!” exclaims Ibrahim.
Abdul Wali, whose two month old son was born in the camp, speaks of the difficulties he faces living in the camp “We are coping, but it is bitterly cold. The UN is helping us but it is not sufficient for our needs.” As he speaks, his voice carries a tone of resignation to his fate in the camp.
A little girl wanders the camp attempting to hide her face with her red scarf. No sooner do I take a picture of her, she disappears into the maze of tents. The other children told me the shy girl’s name was Fatima. Samiullah, a boy no more than four years of age, stands languid, his head leaning against a wooden pole with a look of dejection on his face. The trauma of the flight from his home to brave the bitter winter cold of the camp is evident in his eyes. An entire generation of children have been traumatised by a conflict they know nothing about, took no part in, just collateral damage reduced to statistics for aid agencies to deal with.
These are the victims of the so called war on terror. Caught between the Pakistani and American military and the so-called militants, the civilians live with the consequences, forced to leave their homes to become refugees in their own country.