"Pamphlets dropped out of an army helicopter warning us to flee," says Shafi, a Pakistani man who until recently lived with his large family in the Swat Valley. "There were around 600 Taliban in our town."
Shafi didn't wait. With his wife, eight children and grandchildren, he headed for the Mardan district to escape fighting between the Taliban and Pakistani forces. His family is now crowded into a courtyard area of what's called a hujra, a separate area of a Pakistani home used to house guests. "There are 25 of us in two rooms," says Shafi.
As of early June, 3 million people—the majority from Swat Valley—have been displaced by violence. Catholic Relief Services is working quickly to shelter them as their host communities run out of resources. Like Shafi's family, many displaced people are staying in the guest areas of relatives' homes. Spaces intended for just a few temporary guests are being stretched far beyond their capacity.
With experts from its local staff and with emergency technical advisors flown in from the agency's office in Kenya, CRS is building thousands of 14-foot-by-18-foot huts out of bamboo and other materials. As part of the construction process, builders began by asking people who'd be living in the huts what they thought of them.
"We built a demo in early June and asked for feedback from displaced people as well as their hosts," says a CRS area manager. "The response was great. 'It's better than a tent,' people say, 'Much cooler.' " In courtyards like the one where Shafi lives, CRS builds toilets and bathing spaces with septic tanks nearby.
CRS also plans to construct shelters in the courtyards of schools and other public buildings where displaced people are staying, and help those living within the buildings. "We want to repair water facilities there or construct latrines," says a deputy emergency coordinator for CRS.
Keeping local traditions in mind is important. "Usually men from one family aren't permitted to see women from another family," says CRS' emergency coordinator in northern Pakistan. "In one school, many people were living in a classroom. They set up a blanket to cordon off an area for women, which meant the women were living in 4 to 8 square yards of space. In cases like that, we'd like to provide a corridor for women so they can use a washroom, and create spaces where women can congregate during the day."
CRS has opened a new office in Mardan to spearhead the relief effort, and relocated 55 of its Pakistan staff there. "There's no furniture at all yet, so staff members are sitting on the ground, working on their laptops," says the emergency coordinator.
"Right now we're working on shelters for 3,100 families, and hope to eventually help 10,000 families," he continues. That means people like Shafi, uprooted from their homes, will have one less worry during an overwhelmingly difficult time. "We don't know this place. Even the men feel restricted in their movement," says Shafi's son Tahir. With three daughters and five sons, two with their own young children, Shafi's family needs its own space. "We will for sure use the shelter," Shafi nods.
Jos de Voogd is communications officer for Cordaid, Caritas in the Netherlands. Laura Sheahen is CRS' regional information officer for Asia.