Members of Pakistan’s cosseted elite are currently in the midst of their annual winter social revelry. Most of them are preoccupied with the usual overabundance of society balls, weddings, dinners and dance parties which they simply must go to (and are keen to be seen attending).
During this period of extravagant spending and merry festivity very few of these people will spare a thought for 80,000 and more of their countrymen, women and children who happen to be lying out in the open in the freezing January weather lacking food, shelter and warmth. Many of them, particularly the malnourished children, are dying – apparently all due to the actions and misdeeds of our military regime.
In common with most things under the present regime, truth about the plight of these wretched Pakistanis remained concealed until it was thrust into the international media by foreign observers – in this case by officials of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
The UN’s new agency IRIN quoting from a UNICEF report revealed last month that thousands of Baloch women and children, who had fled from the areas of army operation, were not only homeless but were suffering from severe malnutrition and were in dire need of urgent assistance.
These UNICEF officials bluntly accused the Musharraf regime of 'crimes against humanity' by actively blocking the delivery of foreign aid to these starving innocents.
As the Christian Science Monitor reported:
Pakistan's military government is preventing aid groups from helping more than 80,000 people - many of them acutely malnourished children - who have been displaced by a widening civil war in remote southern Balochistan, say international aid workers and diplomats.
An internal assessment by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), shown to the Monitor, paints a disturbing portrait.
UNICEF and Pakistan provincial health officials, who surveyed the area in July and August, report that 59,000 of those suffering are women and children and that 28 percent of the children under 5 were "acutely malnourished." Six percent of the children were so underfed that they would die without immediate medical attention.
"I would say this now qualifies as a 'crimes against humanity' situation," says one foreign observer who has interviewed delegates from the region.
For six months, aid agencies and diplomats have been pressing Pakistan authorities to permit them to distribute aid packages, which include emergency rations, tents, and medicine. The UN won't deliver aid without permission from the host nation, says Robert van Dijk, the top UNICEF officer for Pakistan.
He and other aid workers say provincial officials have continued to assist his local staff in monitoring conditions in southern Balochistan, but more senior provincial and federal officials have simply refused his requests or derailed efforts with endless bureaucratic hurdles.
"We have tried everything to get our aid there," says Mr. van Dijk. "I even know of aid groups that tried to deliver relief without permits, but they got turned back on the road."
Meanwhile, reports from the region indicate the situation has grown even more wretched with the onset of winter. Frustrated aid workers and diplomats are increasingly concerned about the widening humanitarian crisis - and furious they are being denied access to the area.
Six months since the UNICEF assessment, a Western diplomat says: "The UN is now desperate. They are literally begging us for help."
Just this week, the government abruptly canceled a planned tour to Balochistan by a visiting delegation from the European Commission.
There are aid-worker reports that military trucks rounded up displaced people and hid them ahead of earlier visits by local aid groups.
… In the isolated districts of Naseerabad and Jafarabad, where the bulk of the displaced villagers have gathered, one eyewitness describes the refugees as "utterly desperate."
"It's very upsetting to see children in this state," says the local resident, who did not want to be named for fear he would be arrested. "They have no shelter, little clothing, and almost no food."
A climate of political oppression, in which more than 150 Baloch activists have been arrested and taken to undisclosed locations, only amplifies the crisis, say human rights workers and opposition politicians.
Some analysts wonder why the UN hasn't pushed Pakistan on the issue more publicly. "It's quite clear that quiet pressure is not working here," says one Pakistani political analyst. "This situation demands a strong, international condemnation."
Ms. Ahmed of the ICG says that, "The UN has a mandate and UN agencies have a responsibility to help people. My concern here is that if agencies don't meet their mandate they lose credibility."
The UN is not alone in being unable to provide aid. Other organizations, such as Oxfam, CARE, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, have also been trying to gain access to the region.
True to type the military spokesman went into his usual state of denial. “This [UNICEF] report is untrue,” said Maj Gen Shaukut Sultan, “Almost all of those people have gone back.”
While van Dijk agrees that some did return home in September, he claims that a recent UN assessment has shown that other villagers have since been displaced.
“When we went back there recently, we found the same numbers of people,” he says, “and even worse conditions - among the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Interestingly, however, soon after the Christian Science Monitor had interviewed Robert van Dijk, the top UNICEF officer for Pakistan, the newspaper noted that:
[van Dijk’s] office suddenly received a letter from the Pakistani government giving permission to deliver some initial packages.
This begs the question: Why wouldn't Pakistani authorities let relief workers in to help the Baloch victims?
Associated Press quotes Asma Jehangir, Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, who accuses the regime of deliberately blocking all access to the region with the aim of concealing its ongoing military operations.
It appears that even local relief workers may have been denied access to provide aid to the starving women and children. As The News quoting Kachkol Ali Baloch, the leader of Opposition in the Balochistan Provincial Assembly, reported:
Kachkol Baloch, who claimed to have visited the 12 sites where the displaced people live in Jaffarabad and Naseerabad in April 2006, said that that he has taken up the issue in Balochistan Assembly but nothing has been done so far. "Subsequently, I approached Abdul Sattar Edhi to help the affected people but Edhi has not been allowed to carry out any relief work."
While your Blogger is relieved to learn that aid is finally reaching these poor forgotten Pakistanis he can only but endorse UNICEF’s Robert van Dijk’s poignant comment:
"This should have happened 10 months ago," he says. "If it would have happened then those children who died would still be alive. I don't know how many more have died by now."
If UNICEF had not stubbornly and publicly persisted in trying to protect our country’s women and children it is highly probable these people would have been left to die in their hundreds.
The less said about our brutal regime the better, but what about our uncaring elite who feasted, partied and danced while thousands of their country’s innocent women and children lay homeless, hungry and dying in the freezing cold?