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Faces Of The UN Campaign On Internal Displacement

Feature: Human Faces Of The UN Campaign On Internal Displacement

New York, Dec 18 2008 6:10PM

Mohammed huddles under a tent after walking six hours through the mountains of Pakistan to escape the bombs and fighting. Qadir seeks work in Kabul after being driven from his home by drought.

Polio-paralysed Julie was carried to safety by her brother after rebels repeatedly raped her in the Central African Republic (CAR). A world away in the forests of Colombia, week-old Luz Esperanza saw the light of day in a makeshift camp away from her indigenous homeland.

And in Europe 72-year-old Ilya waits to see his home again in north-west Georgia as he still shelters amid the stench of broken sewer pipes in a run-down former Soviet spa 15 years after war sent him fleeing.

These are the human faces and sad sagas behind the year-long campaign that the United Nations launched today to highlight, and hopefully help solve, the plight of scores of millions of internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Mohammed (his name changed for protection reasons) hasn’t slept well in months. His 22-year-old face is lined and there is a permanent furrow between his brows. He is among tens of thousands of Pakistanis displaced by fighting between the Government and militants in the tribal areas of Bajaur, bordering Afghanistan. More than 12,800 have been registered in IDP camps in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

“Early this year, militants in our village started kidnapping people, extorting money and forcing civilians to join them,” he says. “We formed a committee to oppose them, but they killed everyone who joined.”

When the military operation was launched in August, many welcomed it. “I’m very happy the army is rooting out the militants,” Mohammed says. “But the aerial bombing targeted our neighbour’s house. Our house was hit too. We ran out and couldn’t take anything with us. We lost our wheat and cattle worth 200,000 rupees (US$2,500).”

They walked for six hours through the mountains before reaching the road. They then bussed through Mohmand Agency to Charsadda district in NWFP, where they were hosted by strangers for a few days. When they heard there were camps in the provincial capital of Peshawar, they went immediately and now live in tents too small for his family grouping of 15.

“We can’t all go back because if the terrorists in our area catch us, they’ll slaughter us,” he says. “We’ve heard that the situation in Bajaur won’t be normal for the next eight months. We’re worried about how to spend the time here, especially with winter.”

Julie, 25, was born and raised in Bétoko, one of the principal market towns in north-west CAR. Both her parents died when she was young and she and her seven siblings were brought up by their older brother. As a child, she contracted polio and lost the use of her legs, her mobility now depending on a wheelchair and the strength of her arms.

But several years ago Chadian and Central African rebels came to the town. “They arrived and started shooting, people were falling everywhere,” she says. The market was attacked and the population fled in confusion but Julie was unable to follow.

“There was also an old man who couldn’t leave, he was a bit drunk, they tied him up next to me and then they killed him. For nothing,” she adds. Julie was powerless to prevent four Chadian rebels when they stole her money and violently raped her, only stopping after Central African fighters intervened.

As evening fell she crawled towards her family home where she was met by her older brother, who had come looking for her and he carried her to safety. Julie and her family remained at their camp in the bush for seven months, during which time her youngest sister died from a snake bite.

Then a new wave of bandits, known as zaraguinas, came, attacking markets, and ransacked her home and beat her. Some of her siblings fled to a refugee camp in Chad but as she was unable to make the long and dangerous journey with them she came to the CAR town of Paoua where she was taken in by her cousin.

Deep in the jungles of south-west Colombia’s Pacific coast the indigenous Awá are tied by culture and religion to their ancestral hunting grounds, but it was not at home where Luz Esperanza saw the light of day. Fighting between government troops and an irregular armed group sent her parents fleeing with more than 1,000 others to a large cement hangar and five sheds never meant for human habitation in the regional Awá centre of Inda Sabaleta.

“The first five days were terrible, the children especially were very scared and didn't understand,” said Daniela, Luz Esperanza’s grandmother, adding that her biggest worry was the scarcity of clean water – and not knowing if and when she would be able to return home.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Ilya and his frail wife Riano look on as the humanitarian community responds to calls to help the tens of thousands of people displaced by a more recent conflict between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia last August.

“Our heart is with the [newly] displaced. We know from experience what that means,” says Ilya, one of 400 ethnic Georgians who have been living in the former spa in the central Georgian resort town of Borjomi since fleeing their homes in the breakaway region of Abkhazia in 1993. “We see how the world is rushing to help them. What about us?”

Their needs are great. The tsarist-era spa-turned-IDP centre has certainly seen better times. “The stench is unbearable here,” Marina, a 43-year-old IDP from the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi, says of the once elegant hilltop building. “Look, the sewage pipes are broken and the waste water oozes through the walls.”

But it is not only conflict that has displaced tens of millions worldwide. It is estimated that war drove some 26 million from their homes in 2007, but the number of those uprooted by natural disaster is almost twice that.

Qadir, 25, joins hundreds of others early every morning at Charahi Sarai Shomali, a busy roundabout in northern Kabul, waiting for potential employers to pick them up for daily-wage labour, mostly on construction sites. They are among thousands of people forced from their homes by severe drought and food shortages in the north and west to find work and aid.

“There’s no rain this year,” says Qadir, who comes from Balkh. “Back home, I own a plot of rain-fed land and grew wheat on it. It's small but was enough to feed my family – until the drought. I just left the land. It's useless.”

Momin, 18, is from Charken village in Balkh province, where he supports a family of six people. “My whole neighbourhood is affected. In the past, we could work on our farms. But now, people are going to Mazar-e-Sharif or Kabul to find jobs,” he says.

These, and some 67 million others, are the poster children of the campaign the UN is now launching on internal displacement, seeking to boost investment in disaster risk reduction strategies, better preparedness and early warning mechanisms; urge the international community to act to ensure parties to conflicts cease arbitrary displacement; and muster sufficient financial and political capital to secure long-term solutions.

ENDS

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