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Swat Valley Returnees in Acute Need of Help

The United Nations refugee agency says thousands of people who have returned to the homes they fled last year from Pakistan's Swat Valley are still struggling to rebuild their lives. Next week will mark the first anniversary of the fighting between the Pakistan government and Taliban militants, which resulted in more than two million people fleeing their homes.

The U.N. refugee agency says the intense fighting that erupted nearly one year ago between the Pakistani government and Taliban militants in the Swat Valley triggered one of the largest and fastest developing displacements it has ever seen.

While the fighting was particularly fierce, it was short lived. And, on July 13, 2009, the Pakistani government began a program to help the internally displaced people return to the homes they had fled.

The government estimates 80 to 90 percent of the more than two million people who were affected have returned to their home areas.

While the Swat Valley remains relatively stable, UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic says many of those who have returned home are having difficulty in resuming a normal life.

"Today, Swat's capital Mingora is once again a bustling town, but the human cost of the conflict is still being felt there and across the Swat Valley," said Mahecic. "UNHCR and its NGO partners are helping some of the most vulnerable returnees by building shelters for civilians whose homes and other property has been lost. In Swat, Buner and Lower Dir, we are working with partners to build more than 12,000 shelters for families whose houses were badly damaged or destroyed. Typically, these people live in small rural villages and were already very poor."

Mahecic says the UNHCR and its partners have set up 15 welfare centers in Swat and Lower Dir where psychologists continue to counsel people suffering from trauma. He says more than 30,000 vulnerable people have been helped since November.

While a dramatic number of people have returned home, Mahecic says the displacement crisis in northwest Pakistan is not over. He says some 1.3 million people from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas remain displaced.

He says the region remains volatile. He says people are still fleeing the conflict areas to escape the sporadic operations launched by the security forces against the militants in the tribal belt.

"In April alone, some 85,000 people have been newly registered by the local officials," he said. "They fled from Kurram and Orakzai… Registration was later suspended following an attack on the registration point in Kohat on 17 April. Today, UNHCR in Pakistan faces a complex humanitarian operation on several fronts. In addition to helping people rebuild lives and homes in return areas, new IDPs from Kurram and Orakzai need to be registered and given emergency relief. The longer term displaced still are also in need of care."

Mahecic says more than 130,000 people live in nine camps, which have to be maintained or consolidated. He says new return operations to other areas in the tribal belt are underway.

He says a lot of money will be needed to make their return sustainable. So far, he notes the UNHCR only has received $35 million of the $176 million it needs to carry out its humanitarian operations in northwest Pakistan's Swat Valley this year.