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Swat refugees testing the limits of Pashtun hospitality

MALAKAND TOP, Pakistan — Suppose 93 relatives arrived to stay with you, penniless, fleeing from a war zone, staying for an indefinite period.

They would be Dr. Mohammad Ayaz, who worked in a regional hospital in Swat, and with his huge extended family occupied a seven-house compound until the Pakistani army mounted an operation earlier this month against the Taliban who'd taken over the area.

Now Ayaz and his family are jammed together with overwhelmed cousins in Malakand Top, south of Swat, part of a vast swarm of refugees from the fighting, largely dependent on the hospitality of friends, family, and in some cases, complete strangers.

According to the latest official figures, 1.2 million from Swat and two adjoining districts in north west Pakistan, Dir and Buner, also subject to anti-Taliban operations, have registered as "internally displaced people".

And there may soon be more refugees. On Sunday, the country's president, Asif Zardari, said that, after Swat, the army would go into Waziristan, the base for the Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaida, as well a sanctuary for Afghan insurgents.

"Swat is just the start. It's a larger war to fight," Zardari told The Sunday Times, the British weekly newspaper. The interior ministry said over 1,000 militants had been killed in the offensive thus far.

Of the current refugees, just 131,000 are living in camps that sprouted up to accommodate them.

There, rows of tents provide sweltering homes in 100-degree heat. The danger of communicable diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis lurks. And for the conservative Pashtuns driven into the camps, there's little privacy, especially for their women.

"We are all poor now," said Dr. Ayaz, surrounded by dozens of children of his siblings and cousins. "We are human beings, not animals. Give us back our self-respect, we are Pashtuns, we are Muslims, we cannot shed our self-respect."

The 93 family members are packed into five rooms, spread between their cousins two modest houses. They have received no aid. Those living outside of camps have been largely ignored by aid agencies, the government and the media. But the scale of the Ayaz family's needs is not unusual.

For example, in Jalala village, outside Mardan, the nearest major city to Swat, Alamgir Khan and his 25 relations are being put up by an uncle in four rooms. But Khan said he'd been forced to borrow around $560, a considerable sum in Pakistan, from his uncle, to buy bedding, clothes and eating utensils.

"We came with nothing," said Khan, 26. "They (our hosts) will get fed up with us eventually. Then I don't know what we'll do but I have faith in God that something will turn up for us."

The Pashtun people of Swat have proud traditions of hospitality. Those not putting people up have been volunteering to man food and drink stations for the refugees

"Had it not been for the hospitality of the common man, it would have been a total disaster," said Hasham Baber, a senior member of the Awami National Party, which runs the provincial government in North West Frontier Province, which includes Swat and the surrounding areas.

Aid agencies and the government are now trying to devise a system to help refugees put up by friends and family. There are distribution points where registered refugees who are not in camps can pick up non-food items, though most don't seem to know about this service.

"We recognize that we're certainly not reaching everyone," said Ariane Rummery, a spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), which is at the forefront of the aid effort.


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