A large “Welcome to Peshawar” sign greeted me as I got off the motorway from Islamabad. I could not help but think how different the two cities were. The federal capital lies at the foot of the Margalla range, lush green and welcoming, a quiet city with its wide, tree-lined avenues and neatly planted gladiolas. Peshawar, on the other hand, is loud and bustling as the city buzzes with activity. The mountains in the backdrop are barren and steep – protecting the city from the violence that is a common feature on the other side.
I was in Peshawar as part of the Save the Children team to assess needs of the Internally Displaced People (IDP). The government of Pakistan has been clamping down on militant groups in the Khyber Agency, part of the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), since mid-January. Hundreds of thousands of people are said to have fled or are fleeing. Many may not have a place to stay, food to eat or money to see a doctor if they are sick. Majority of them are now seeking shelter at Jalozai camp or are living in Peshawar with extended families, friends or in rented houses.
As I crossed the heart of the city towards the main road that led to the Tehsil Bara in the Khyber Agency, traffic dwindled and it was hard not to miss the significant drop in the number of people wandering the streets. Nevertheless, we continued down the dusty, winding road that would bring us to a small settlement in Cheeni Village.
Kids playing hopscotch nearby eyed me curiously while I knocked on doors looking for houses that IDPs rented. That is how I found Imran (not his real name), who opened his door and let me into his house. To call it a house would be an exaggeration; the doorway was curtained with a used flour bag and the walls were blackened with soot and dirt. Imran’s wife, Salma (not her real name), was washing clothes when I entered. As per Pashtun culture, Imran left while Salma introduced me to her children.
“This is my eldest daughter, Naeema (not her real name). I have two daughters and four sons,” she said, as she hurriedly cleared some space on the floor for me to sit. The conditions inside were terrible. A battered, used plastic soda bottle, black on the edges with grime was half-filled with water next to an assortment of battered and chipped utensils. On the floor was a frayed and tattered plastic mat which, I later discovered, served as both Salma and her daughters’ bed. Her two sons, Ismail and Ishaq, were standing by, peering at me inquisitively. The family had left their home in Khyber and were renting this place. “Our house had burned down after a mortar hit it,” Salma said flatly. When I asked her who had attacked their home, she said she did not know.
Her two sons went to school but also worked part-time at a private house, washing cars and getting groceries. They earned US $11 a month for their work. This was the family’s main source of income which helped pay the rent. Salma explained that her husband was unable to find a job and they had to rely on support from members of the village and the mosque for basic food supplies. So far they have been living off money earned from selling their cattle when they moved from Khyber. They were already in debt, having borrowed from sympathetic neighbours.
Hygiene levels were low in Cheeni village, said Salma. The family has no latrines and the nearest water point is half a kilometre away. The children brought in water once a day when it is rationed to residents. Washing their clothes, Hadia said, was a luxury that they seldom allowed themselves.
Naeema had never gone to school as girls were not allowed to go to school in Khyber. Here in Peshawar, the nearest school only educated up to fifth grade and at 14 years old, she feels too old to go to school. Salma said: “I want to get her a sewing machine so she can learn how to sew. She would earn well by sewing clothes for the people in the village. I wish she had an education but it was God’s will. I pray for her future, hoping that she doesn’t go through what I have had to go through in life.” Life seemed pretty bad for Salma and her children before they lost their homes and were displaced from their village, and their current predicament didn’t hold out much hope for a better future.
The family dreams of having their own home. “I could deal with all the troubles in the world if only I had my own house,” Salma said. “My constant fear is that the landlord will throw us out one morning and I will have nowhere to go with my children.”
It was such a simple wish: To be able to stay with your family in a home without the fear of being evicted. As I left, I wondered if Salma would ever find such security. When would she be able to return to her village, what would await her there, and would peace also return with her?