PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Bomb attacks and threats to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have brought development work to a virtual halt in the lawless, volatile environment that is the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), located near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.
The latest in the series of attacks on the offices of NGOs occurred on Mar. 10, when armed men shot at the U.S.-based charity World Vision’s premises in a remote village in Mansehra district. Six persons, including two women, were killed in the attack.
World Vision condemned the attack as "brutal and senseless", and indefinitely suspended all of its operations in Pakistan, where the charity has about 300 staff. It has been operating in Mansehra since the 2005 earthquake.
This comes after the United Nations withdrew its foreign staff from the NWFP in view of the deteriorating law and order situation on Nov. 2 last year.
It is widely believed that the reason for the March attack was the militants’ view that civil society groups – which mushroomed in the years after the 2001 ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan in response to needs for basic services – were "puppets" of the U.S. government that employ women staff to promote indecency.
A local official quoted one of the injured World Vision workers in hospital as saying of the assailants, who spoke Urdu, Hindko, and Pashto and were therefore from different ethnic groups: "They rounded up the aid workers while shouting at them that they had been warned to stop spreading obscenity."
While none of Taliban groups – whether in Pakistan or in neighboring Afghanistan have openly claimed responsibility for the attack, Waqar Ayub, commissioner of the Hazara division, which includes Mansehra district, said in an interview that it was the handiwork of Taliban.
"We are conducting an inquiry into the incident but given the track record of attacks on NGOs, we are sure that Taliban would be involved," he told IPS in a telephone interview.
"A group of about one dozen stormed the offices of the Christian charity, locked the aid workers in one room before beginning to shoot them," he said.
Before his arrest in September last year, the Taliban spokesman in Swat district, Muslim Khan, had told IPS: "The NGOs are financed by the United States to malign Islam in eyes of the global community. Working of women in NGOs is against Islam." Women should sit at home and their venturing out in public is against the injunctions of Islam, he had said.
In the wake of the attack, representatives of the Sarhad NGO Ittehad (NWFP NGO Alliance) called a press conference on Mar. 12 to demand protection from the government and ask it to arrest the perpetrators.
"The NGOs were busy carrying out development work in different areas of the province, but there was no protection to lives of the workers and their offices," Rukhshanda Naz of Aurat Foundation said.
Representatives of NGOs such as Amn Tehrik, Alliance for the Protection of Human Rights, Citizen Rights’ Movement, Women Action Forum, Tribal Development Network, Pakistan Minority Rights Committee and Aurat Foundation spoke at the press conference.
The attack was meant to harass foreign donors and those working in far- flung areas of the neglected areas of NWFP, Naz added. "The Mansehra attack was not the first such incident and a number of NGO offices had been attacked in the past. But the government took no effective steps for the protection of the organizations and their workers," she pointed out.
"NGOs are playing a vital role in boosting the local economy and have provided employment to thousands of educated people in the country," Idrees Kamal of Peace Movement said.
Pakistan was quite safe until 2004, by which time some 60,000 local and foreign NGOs had registered to work on areas from the empowerment of women to providing water, sanitation and health services to local communities as part of rehabilitation efforts especially near the border with Afghanistan.
But the U.S.-led forces’ ousting of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which they held responsible for the Sep. 11 attacks in the United States, also forced the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies to cross to Pakistan through the porous 24- kilometer border and take sanctuary in the Federal Administered Tribal Area (FATA).
From there, they started targeting the Pakistan army, police and NGO offices in the adjacent NWFP, one of the four provinces of Pakistan.
Like Afghan Taliban, the Pakistan-based Taliban are strictly opposed to the idea of women working outside the home. In Swat and other areas, they had been very strict on women roaming in bazaars or working in offices.
"Even school principals have been receiving threats to make compulsory the wearing of veils while coming and going out of schools," said a teacher in Mardan, one of the 24 districts of NWFP.
"Most of the 900 female students have now starting wearing burqa (veils) and school attendance has decreased," added Gul Bahar, principal of the Government Girls High School.
Five workers of the British-based NGO Plan International were killed and 10 others sustained serious injuries in an attack by militants on Dec. 11, 2009 in Mansehra, where the World Vision attack also occurred.
On Apr. 7, 2009, three female workers and a driver for the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded Project Rise International were killed by unidentified gunmen in Mansehra.
As for the United Nations’ future work in the area, Ian Miller, U.N. deputy security adviser in Pakistan, said in an interview: "We don’t know about the resumption of U.N. activities because it is Phase IV according to U.N. security standards, where the staff is evacuated due to law and order (concerns)."
Other development workers have decided that it is not worth taking more risks.
On Mar. 12, doctors and other staffers of the international medical humanitarian organization Medecins Sans Frontieres closed their hospital in Mansehra and left after receiving threats from militants and reading hostile letters pasted on the doors of different mosques.
(Inter Press Service)