Saturday, 4 July 2009

A Lesson in Pashtunwali (پښتونوالی )


Up to 85% of people displaced by the war in Malakand are not in refugee camps. They have been taken in by host families acting on a code known as Pashtunwali, which shapes the behaviour of Pashtoons. It places critical importance on hospitality and the sheltering of guests, melmastia; it is the same principle, in a dark irony, that has prompted Pashtoon communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan to host al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, long past the point that this became a rash and destructive thing for them to do. The humanitarian crisis in Pakistan, the biggest in the world right now, has attracted only a minuscule amount of help. The United Nations says it has just a third of the $500 million it needs to care for the displaced; other aid agencies report even greater shortfalls.

“We can barely meet the basic humanitarian need right now – access to water and sanitation,” said Graham Strong, a Canadian who heads the World Vision program in Pakistan. “People need food. People need shelter. One family I met put 90 people in two rooms.”

There is a predictable scramble to provide tents and food across 27 refugee camps. However, it is much more difficult to reach those who have gone to what are called “host families,” even though their needs are every bit as urgent. Mr. Strong called theirs “an invisible emergency.” The host families strain their own often-limited resources to feed and clothe the new arrivals. Most, Mr. Strong noted, were poor to begin with.

“It's amazing that these families are taking this on,” he said. “I can't think of anywhere else you would see two million people displaced and they go to families.”

In this case, the Pashtunwali code has bailed out the weak Pakistani government, which seems not to have anticipated the human flood that surged away from its military operation, and had neither funds nor facilities to respond.


Mr. Strong and others in the aid community are struggling with the question of who is responsible. “Conflicts are always harder than a natural disaster, but this one is exponentially harder,” he said of his weeks of largely fruitless pleading for more resources. “Is it because there are perceptions that this is a mess of their own making? It is not of their own making. The two million displaced are not responsible for the fighting between government and insurgents.

تور خان
Adapted for this blog.
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