(HN, 1/2/13) - Thousands of villagers on Wednesday held a mass burial for seven health workers - five of them women, who were gunned down by militants, in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa's Swabi district, Pakistan, on Tuesday. The killings are the latest in a series of persecution of aid workers in the contentious tribal area.
The dead had been working for the private Pakistani aid group Support With Working Solution, in the northwestern district Swabi, at an immunization centre where children are given anti-polio vaccination. The police said two men on a motorbike followed a van taking the workers home, intercepted it near the village of Sher Afzal Banda where militants opened fire with assault rifles. One child, aged 7 to 8 years, miraculously survived.
Nobody has owned responsibility for the attack, though its suspected that Pakistani Taliban could be behind the strike, since they oppose the vaccination campaigns and Taliban militants affiliated to the Al Qaeda global terror network have been attacking charity and aid workers across the country in recent weeks.
Last year, 15 health and aid workers were killed in Pakistan, making the country one of the most dangerous in the world for aid workers, according to the British-based group Humanitarian Outcomes. Most were women. Development sector experts now express concerns that those working on the ground will shy away from assignments.
“In the past, local volunteers, be they teachers, medical workers or social mobilizers, considered themselves safe and worked hand in hand with foreign aid workers and paramilitary personnel in even the most dire of circumstances,” says Hassan Belal Zaidi, a development and communication specialist, based in Islamabad. “But now, it would not be unreasonable for them to think twice and even refuse to travel to remote parts of the country if they know there is a chance they may get shot.”
Support With Working Solution has suspended its activities. The organization runs dozens of health and education projects, including polio vaccinations, in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Health and education programs, particularly those for girls, are seen as being at particular risk.
Fazal Dad, whose daughter was among the dead, said she always proclaimed, 'Father, if I am not guilty no one can harm me'.
The attack comes days after nine people working on an anti-polio vaccination campaign were shot dead in a series of attacks and forced the United Nations to temporarily recall staff and suspend an immunization campaign from Pakistan, one of just three countries in the world in which polio remains endemic - at least 57 cases were registered in 2012, and there are now concerns about a record number of deaths from measles in the south.
An umbrella organization of 200 aid groups Wednesday demanded greater protection in Pakistan, and they vowed to continue working in order not to encourage “those who are opposed to progress”.
“We have to stand up and foil the nefarious designs of anti-state elements who are bent upon destroying the fabric of civil society,” said the Pakhtunkhwa Civil Society Network; asking for government protection for charity workers “vulnerable to the menace of terrorism”.
(Video: No stranger to tragedy, on July 11, 2012 the Pakhtunkhwa Civil Society Network buried another.)
Additionally, on December 22, Bashir Bilour, a senior minister in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and eight others were killed in a suicide attack on a political meeting claimed by the Taliban. More than 35,000 people have been killed as a result of terrorism in the country in the last twelve years.
Imtiaz Iltaf, police chief of Peshawar, said officers were preparing a strategy to protect aid workers. “We are in a state of war. The whole country is facing an insurgency, so we are revising the present security steps and working on a new strategy,” he said.
The recent attacks are likely to further frighten people from working with foreign and Pakistani aid and development organizations, says Bushra Arain, chairwoman for the All Pakistan Lady Health Workers Welfare Association, which counts more than 100,000 registered members.
“We are the backbone of Pakistani health sector. If the attacks continue, with the state showing the inability it currently is demonstrating in stopping us from being targeted, we will stop working,” Ms. Arain says.
“If the attacks by the Taliban continue, there will be widespread de-motivation amongst aid workers, which I am already witnessing,” Mr. Hussain of the Pakhtunkhwa Civil Society Network says.
--- Reporting based on sources, agencies, HUMNEWS.