The government of Pakistan remains woefully under-prepared for a displacement crisis in South Waziristan as civilians flee the region following three days of heavy fighting, Amnesty International said on Monday.
Tens of thousands of residents have escaped the conflict zone after Pakistan's army launched a new offensive against suspected Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces on Saturday in the northwest of the country.
Many are seeking refuge in the neighbouring areas of Dera Ismail Khan and Tank but Amnesty International research teams on the ground report a glaring lack of facilities to support the influx of displaced families.
“The Pakistani government has to ensure the well-being of its own citizens, even when it’s fighting against a group with a record of violations like the Pakistani Taleban. There is no excuse for not complying with basic human rights principles or the laws of war,” said Sam Zarifi.
Amnesty International understands that about 20,000 displaced people have been registered by the UN refugee agency in the area at one registration point alone, but as yet there is no camp to accommodate them. Many more are expected to arrive if the fighting in South Waziristan continues.
There are no emergency health facilities for displaced people and local hospitals are full. There are also insufficient supplies of food and drinkable water. Most of the displaced have been living with host communities-often relatives or friends.
Local officials imposed a curfew in Tank last week limiting movement between 6pm and 6am, while there is also restricted access on the road to Dera Ismail Khan. This significantly hinders the ability of people from South Waziristan to seek shelter in safer parts of the country.
“The authorities must ensure that all civilians, regardless of ethnic group or background have access to adequate food, water, healthcare and shelter especially as the winter months approach.
The Pakistan government has failed to prepare adequate camps where fleeing civilians could find shelter in an emergency and has limited its response to preparing six facilities for registering internally displaced people (four in Dera Ismail Khan, one in Tank and on in Pathankot).
The government has provided registered families with automated bank cards giving them access to Rupees 5000 (US$60).
Several displaced residents of South Waziristan told Amnesty International that local government officials had refused to register them indicating a possibly serious under-estimation of the total number of displaced people.
Due to insecurity in the area, only one local nongovernment organization, FIDA, has been given the task of assisting the displaced.
“Conditions around South Waziristan are even worse than in Swat, because few aid groups, whether international or local, are able to operate in this highly insecure area. Add to that the impending cold weather and the potential for a real calamity is quite high,” said Sam Zarifi.
Residents of South Waziristan recently told Amnesty International that they had fled military operations in the mountainous areas of Ladah, Makin and Zahwarr.
They said they were forced to travel through often treacherous mountain roads because the military has blocked the main roads in the area.
The road blockades have aggravated local food shortages, also spurring people to leave their homes.
South Waziristan is estimated to have a population of around 450,000 people, according to 1998 census figures.
Amnesty International research teams report that between 90,000 and 150,000 residents of South Waziristan have fled the area since July, when the Pakistani military began a long-range artillery and aerial bombardment in the region.