Victims rely on flood aid from Islamic extremists
Charity linked to terrorists is winning battle for hearts as Western aid slows
Published 22/08/2010 | 05:00
The queue stretches silently into the darkness as dozens of families wait for a plate of rice and chicken curry to break their Ramadan fast.
There is not a UN truck or government official in sight at the small but efficient relief camp, close to the north-west Pakistani town of Nowshera.
Instead, the food is provided by a hardline Islamist charity linked to terrorists blamed for the 2008 attacks on Mumbai.
Two years after it was banned, Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) members are working under a new name providing food, medicine and wads of rupee notes to hundreds of thousands of people affected by devastating floods.
Similar makeshift camps run by Falah-e-Insaniat, the group's latest incarnation, are in operation across Pakistan, raising fears that charities linked to militants are using the catastrophe to win hearts, minds and influence.
The trend is all the more alarming because they are filling a vacuum left by the failures of the government to provide aid.
The prime minister's disaster relief fund has raised a paltry 120 million rupees -- less than €1.3m -- a figure that is scoffed at by Mian Adil of Falah-e-Insaniat.
"We are raising that every day," he laughed. "We have thousands of volunteers, hundreds of collection points."
The stakes are high in a nuclear-armed country seen by the US as an ally in the war on terror, but where the West is viewed with suspicion. Any growth of extremism could undermine an unpopular government.
President Asif Ali Zardari last week accused the charities of ulterior motives. "There is a possibility the negative forces would exploit this time of need," he said. "They would take babies who become orphans, put them in their own camps and train them as the terrorists of tomorrow."
Rehman Malik, the interior minister, said he would arrest members of banned organisations operating in flood-hit areas, but few believe that he is willing to do so.
JuD was banned in Pakistan after the 2008 Mumbai attacks that left 166 people dead. However, it still operates throughout Pakistan under its own distinctive banner or through its partners. And its relief operation is far from a tokenistic effort.
Across the country, Falah-e-Insaniat claims to be feeding more than 400,000 people, as well as distributing cash to families in the worst affected areas.
Mr Adil made no secret of his charity's origins and admitted he was a member of the banned JuD. He insisted the aid was delivered without a political message, but refused to condemn the actions of Lashkar-e-Taiba.
"We are just a welfare organisation," he insisted. "But I will not call the jihadi groups terrorists. They are fighting for freedom."
The torrential rains that unleashed the worst floods for 80 years have eased in recent days, although millions remain at risk of disease. The hilly country around Nowshera has dried out, but the signs of flood devastation are everywhere.
Bushra Begum, 28, explained how she had to rely on Falah-e-Insaniat since her home was destroyed.
"We need funds to rebuild our houses," she said. "We need food. We need medicine for diseases. Life is very, very hard and there is no help from the government."