Jalozai Refugee Camps

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Jalozai has hosted refugees and subsequently, IDPs (Internally Displaced People) for decades . The Jalozai refugee camp, located near Nowshera in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan, has been a momentous settlement for Afghan refugees for decades.

The Jalozai camp was initially established at the start of the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s to provide shelter for Afghan refugees flooding into Pakistan for safety. It later evolved into one of the largest refugee camps in Pakistan. The camp has accommodated waves of Afghan refugees in different time periods, including those displaced during the US War on Terror in Afghanistan and those internally displaced from tribal areas due to army operations as part of War on Terror in Pakistan. 

As part of the research and filming of the documentary Suffering In Silence, I visited the Jalozai refugee camp in 2013 to see the situation of IDPs living in temporary shelters. The Jalozai camps had already been packed with Afghan refugees due to consistent wars in Afghanistan and then the War on Terror which meant that the onset of Drone attacks and Army operations in North West Pakistan further cramped it. It was a precarious home to tens of thousands of Afghans in late 2000. The refugees constructed crude shelters made of canvas and plastic on ground that often flooded when it rained, adding to the intense poverty and complete lack of necessities.  

The camp was officially “closed” to Afghan refugees in April 2008 which was deemed as an achieved goal for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, albeit without giving any consideration to ending the cause of people being uprooted from their homes. This pointless exercise was futile; the camp was filled with refugees again, ready to live in squalid conditions as that was the only option of survival for them.  

At one point following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Jalozai had seen its inhabitants swell to more than 300,000 people. Despite moving people out of this site to new refugee camps built near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, the camp remained an unkind refuge to thousands uprooted by the War on Terror where the survivors of the war, especially children, died in deleterious conditions in large numbers.

By 2009, Pakistani IDPs, displaced by military operations, were already flooding into this officially closed but still inhabited camp. At the time of my visit, it was home to more than 40,000 people ,with the unofficial count being much larger than that, of which 53% were children. It was a tent city, where people had been forced to live on the oxymoron of war for peace as they were forced out of their homes because other, supposedly more important, people in other parts of the world were feeling unsafe in their homes without any imminent danger. Within the camps inhabitants, there were hardly any families who had not lost any of their members in the War on Terror, either directly killed in war or during displacement and camp life. Many families lost their young children while walking for days in hope to reach safe shelter. There is no diction ever invented to fully express the pain of losing a child during a forced migration and carrying their dead bodies or burying them on the way. 

For centuries, these people had been known for their and uncompromised self respect. Now the ruthless wars have dragged them out of their houses and left them in never-ending queues for food. The whole population was left with unhealed trauma of war tragedies, struggle for basic necessities and a feeling of immense disrespect. 

The part of the camp that we arrived at was a shelter for 19 thousand families of IDPs from Malakand, due to the Pakistani Army Operation “Rah-e-Rast”. The influx of IDPs from Mohmand and Bajur had raised the total count to 95 thousand families in the Jalozai Camp, 11 thousand of which were from Mohmand Agency and 65 thousand from Bajur. At the time of our visit, military operations had started in Bara and IDPs from Bara had started moving to the Jalozai camps as well, swelling the population to the maximum.

As soon as we entered the refugee camps, people started gathering around us, holding their ID cards. They thought that we might have come to distribute some charity donations. I can never forget the old lady who came to me and told me that she is terrified of every little noise in the tent. She had lost her daughter in the bomb attack and she was suffering from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Like thousands of others going through physical and psychological trauma, she was suffering from it in complete absence of any psychiatric help. This was the world of those people who had witnessed the war and the destruction as a physical experience, rather than as a news headline. The level of psychological trauma inhabiting these camps is impossible to express.

A widow, mother of four, who escaped along with other people fleeing their houses, told me how she and her four children saw her husband die in a mortar bomb attack and how she struggles to survive as a widow in the male dominated community stuck in the midst of a situation where survival was a daily struggle. 

Lal Akbar, a Homeopathy medicine practitioner, working in camps told me that he very frequently sees patients coming with physical ailments but they complain that they are not able to forget the bloodshed they had seen. He narrated the case of a family who found the head of their in their courtyard when they were fleeing homes and now their children suffer from severe mental health issues. He had nothing to offer, other than intangible hope for the future. One can never imagine the trauma of these people who had been living under the humming sound of drones flying over their heads as if imminent death was flying over them, people who had been living with the background noise of mortar bombing, people who left their homes hastily as death was stalking them in in their courtyards and those who had been searching for the clues of life under the rubbles before they left their destroyed homes. 

Families of four to eight people often lived in a single tent, or in a one-room mud hut, across the camp’s eight sections with no running water and highly inadequate toilet, health and education facilities. IDPs were given small portions of dry ration every month to survive on while they had to arrange for their own wood and water to cook the only meal of the day in their camp. 

Children who had missed their academic years due to the war were mostly playing around in the dry mud around their tents. The situation was particularly vulnerable for young children. Like every other refugee camp, Jalozai camps inhabitants were vulnerable to criminal activity due to the large concentration of people, often with limited resources, opportunities and law and order with an added fear of bomb explosions in the camp. Mostly, people had no opportunity to go out of their camps and search for alternate options of life other than those who had already been accommodated by their families outside camps. But because of the fact that most of the families in this part of the world tend to live in the same area, mostly it was entire tribes and families who had been displaced together and they were not left with an option to be accommodated by their own families outside the war zone. In addition to their localized hardships, the political instability, economic hardships of the host population, environmental disasters and social persecution added to their crisis many-fold. They were the unfortunate refugees whose overall community had been tagged with terrorism as a political mainstream media strategy to make the highly unpopular war acceptable in the masses. 

Jalozai was tragic and visible evidence of the miserable plight of victims of war, abuse and deprivation. Existence of this camp city was a repetition of the international community’s usual and complete neglect of the victims of war. Unfortunately, this human trauma couldn’t shake the conscience of International Human Rights advocates.  

(Today, the camps no longer exist and Jalozai has been turned into a beautiful housing society for the rich).

Author – Aisha Ghazi (Founder – iResist)