I met Marhaba, who introduced herself as a widow and mother of four young children, at Jalozai camp, near the Pakistani city of Peshawar.
She told me that she’d been forced to abandon her home in Upper Dir , north-western Pakistan, during intense fighting and shelling a year ago. As families fled in terror, she became separated from her husband. “I call myself a widow now”, she explained ”I have no idea if my husband is dead or alive”.
Marhaba and her family
Marhaba has ended up living on a site that now houses almost a quarter of a million people: a vast city of plastic tents. Jalozai first opened three decades ago, providing shelter to Afghan refugees fleeing into Pakistan to escape fighting. But more recent arrivals have come from Pakistan’s Swat Valley and other regions in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
Last year, more than three million fled their homes amid military operations in the Swat Valley and surrounding areas in what was one the largest and fastest displacements in Pakistan’s recent history. It triggered a major humanitarian response.
But almost a year on, more than a million Pakistanis remain uprooted, depending on emergency relief to survive. More than 200,000 have been freshly displaced in recent months by military offensives in tribal areas of Pakistan. While some live in overcrowded camps, the majority have received no official help. They are forced to rent or stay with friends or relatives.
Jalozai - a tented city
Most like Marhaba left their homes with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. “We fled our village barefoot”, Marhaba told me, saying it took two nights of travel to reach the safety of the camp.
Daily life is still a struggle. While she has a domicile card, Marhaba doesn’t have her husband’s identity card and that can make it hard to access food and other help from the camp authorities. She often has to wait last in line, hoping for leftovers or help from her brothers-in-law and their families.
Like many, she’s heard that her village has been badly damaged, and she’s reluctant to return to an uncertain future. She’s also not entirely convinced the situation is safe for her children to return.
The government is keen for people to return home. It has recently declared several areas safe and wants families to move back. But many people I talked to in the camps were reluctant, knowing that basic services like electricity, water and hospitals have been destroyed. Opportunities to work are also scarce. And they have received no compensation for their destroyed or damaged houses and livelihoods.
Oxfam has been working with many returnee families, running cash-for work programmes so that people can earn some money working on projects that can also benefit the community, like wells and building roads. It is also helping farmers, providing agricultural inputs, tools and cows and goats.
But Oxfam, like many other leading humanitarian agencies, is also sounding an alarm bell: funding for emergency work is drying up. Less than one third of an emergency fund to help those affected by the crisis has been funded by international donors and some programmes may have to close.
Pakistan is in danger of becoming a forgotten crisis. And the future remains uncertain for those like Marhaba, now living a hand-to-mouth existence, who prays for things to get better.