Their names may not make headlines or their faces grace television screens, but to United Nations officials and hundreds of thousands of their fellow Pakistanis, people such as Haji Akbar and Shahzaman are the true heroes of what is one of the largest displacement crises in the world today.
They are among those who have opened up their homes in an unprecedented show of generosity to accommodate men, women and children uprooted by the military operation conducted by Government forces against militants in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
At the height of the crisis just a couple of months ago, the vast majority of the more than 2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) were either sheltering in schools and other public buildings, with host families or in rental accommodations.
“The everyday people of Pakistan are the real heroes of this current crisis in Pakistan,” according to Martin Mogwanja, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Pakistan.
“They are opening the doors of their often modest homes, sharing what they have, no matter how little, no matter how it strains their often modest budgets. True humanitarians, they set an inspiring example of extraordinary generosity for the whole world.”
Haji Akbar did not know any of the men, women and children who arrived at his doorstep one morning in April, or how long they would be staying. But that did not deter the farmer in Swabi district from helping them in their time of need.
“I was extremely happy that I was being able to provide [a] service to my brothers and sisters,” says Akbar, whose family of 14 hosted 60 displaced people for two and a half months.
“It was for the first time in my life that I received so many guests at one time to live in my house,” he told the UN News Centre, on the eve of the first annual World Humanitarian Day, to be observed on 19 August.
“I invited them to stay with me and when they came in I realized there were a lot of people to accommodate so we decided to shift to my brother’s house to leave the whole house for our guests.”
The displaced who were living in camps received relief supplies there. Meanwhile, the UN set up humanitarian hubs for those staying outside the camps where they could come on certain days to pick up food rations and other items.
In addition, agencies such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) provided tents – to extend living spaces and alleviate crowded conditions – as well as food rations, hygiene kits and latrines.
“There’s absolutely no doubt that the fact that people were taken in by host families helped to save lives,” says Ariane Rummery, spokesperson for UNHCR in Pakistan. “To accommodate over 2 million people in camps would have been much tougher.”
UN humanitarian chief John Holmes had a chance to see the “host-community phenomenon” first-hand when he visited areas of NWFP last month, including the village of Jamal Garhi, in Mardan district, where there were as many displaced people as residents, and in one case, one family was hosting some 95 displaced people.
“I think that’s not untypical,” he said following the visit, adding that it has been “a remarkably generous response – partly for traditional, cultural reasons – by the local population in parts of North West Frontier Province.”
Mardan resident Shahzaman and his family of 15 accommodated 30 relatives in their five-room house for two and a half months.
“In these testing times, if we will not provide them shelter where should they go? They were in trouble… they were not a burden to us. We felt proud to host them,” says Shahzaman.
He and his family did receive some UN assistance to cope with the influx but it was still not easy. “With very limited resources, we had to cut most of our own needs. There were budgetary constraints in hosting such a large number of guests.
“I am a low-paid government servant, so this was a big challenge for us,” he adds.
The Pakistani Government estimates that some 890,000 displaced persons have returned since mid-July to their villages in the districts of Buner and Swat – among the areas hardest hit by the military operations.
For many of the host families, the experiences shared over the past several months are ones they will not soon forget.
“Our families made friendships and when they were leaving we were very sad,” says Akbar. “Two and a half months in the same place is a lot of time… we miss them.”