March 30th, 2010
08:16 AM ET

Inside Asia's largest displacement camp

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Camp Jalozai, Pakistan — The first thing you notice about this camp is the sprawl. U.N. tarps as far as the eye can see. And with the sun blazing already at 10 in the morning, you can only imagine how hot it gets under those tarps.

This is going to be a long summer at this displacement camp, the largest in Asia. There is a mini-heatwave stifling Pakistan right now. Along with the heat, the homeless here can expect diarrhoea, skin rashes and hours of uncomfortable living.

The U.N. officials we met were pretty straight up with us, they said conditions were quite good in the camp compared to some others around the world.

That doesn’t mean people aren’t suffering. The Pakistani government is winning praise in Washington and other foreign capitals for its year-long assault on the Taliban. But as the war rages, people here continue to lose their loved ones, their homes, their way of life. But U.N. staff pointed out they have not lost their way. (More: Refugees pay price of Pakistan's Taliban war)

There was one comment that really struck me. The U.N.’s Kilian Klienschmidt, told me that for many in this camp, “it’s as if it’s their first trip to Pakistan.”

What does he mean by that? Most of the more than 100,000 homeless here have never left their village, let alone their tribal region. Coming to this camp has been stressful and chaotic but the U.N. claims it has also been nurturing in some ways.

Men and women are learning about basic medical care, technology, education and even commerce in ways that would never have been possible. That’s not to say that these people aren’t living in misery as Pakistan’s army prosecutes the war against the Taliban. But at least there is some resolve here to create some opportunity for them.

Another thing really rattled me here. There are a significant number of cases of either mild or acute malnutrition. This is not surprising. But the U.N. says they find double the number of girls suffering from malnutrition than boys.

You’ve probably already guessed as to why. Boys are the priority when it comes to dividing scarce food resources in many tribal villages, according the U.N. And there is no use judging this kind of thing I’ve learned. Aid organizations work with it and encourage change that does not threaten cultural continuity and they hope to gradually change perceptions.

Thankfully, in this camp, all those in need can be put on a supplemental food program and most respond well.

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Filed under: Pakistan • Taliban
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