Sardar Mohammad Yousaf, the district nazim (mayor) of Mansehra, in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP), badly affected by the October 2005 earthquake that devastated much of the area, looks worried.
Attacked by a group of 15 persons over the government’s recent storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad - where scores of Islamic students fighting for Sharia law were killed following a week-long siege with security forces - he is not alone.
More than two weeks after the operation, tensions in the district, home to just over one million inhabitants and where many of the mosque students hail from, remain high.
"We are hoping things will soon return to normal, but there is tension at present," said Yousaf.
On 26 July, the local administration in Mansehra, 135km northwest of Islamabad, held a security meeting with aid groups working in the area, urging caution.
The protests triggered by events in Islamabad, have seriously slowed quake reconstruction efforts in several areas where staff members have been withdrawn, with the worst-hit areas being around the Battagram area and the Allai Valley, north of Mansehra.
Threats reported, camps attacked
More isolated incidents of attacks on warehouses storing relief goods and threats to non-governmental organisation (NGO) workers, especially female staff, have also been reported in Shinkiari and other locations in the area.
"Tensions are high across the region, because this kind of fundamentalism has been growing in the NWFP for a very long period of time," Imran Khan, the provincial coordinator of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said from the provincial capital, Peshawar.
The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has confirmed one of its camps in Battagram was burned and another attacked in Bana, the headquarters of Allai, but has declined to comment as to who might be responsible.
Although work is continuing in Mansehra city, a focal point for relief operations in the province, many organisations engaged in work in more troubled areas have withdrawn staff and suspended their work.
Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
|Freshly repainted, Islamabad’s Red Mosque is now firmly under the control of security forces and has become a symbol of rising instability in the country|
"We haven't received specific complaints, but other NGOs have had problems we understand," said Dorothy Blane, the country director for the international NGO, Concern, which is currently working in relatively less volatile areas, such as Mansehra, the Siran Valley and the Kaghan Valley.
Yet the Mansehra area has often been a hotbed of fundamentalism for the past few years. Last year, extremist Islamic scholars in the area delivered a 'fatwa' (religious ruling) regarding the employment of female NGO workers, forcing a number of groups to pull out staff; an issue that has simmered on since.
While aid workers at the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund - along with the Sarhad Rural Support Programme, involved in the reconstruction of 71,000 housing units in quake-affected parts of NWFP - say they are working to ensure large scale rehabilitation work in the area is not affected, the latest unrest in the area has proved worrying.
Mob attacks on buildings, including those belonging to Care International on 10 July in Battagram sub-district, as well as the Allai office two days later, have adversely hit quake relief activities.
Field offices of the Earthquake Relief and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) were closed down and activities suspended in many parts of the NWFP, following the Red Mosque siege, although the government agency maintains that any closures were "only a temporary response" to trouble, with relief operations continuing.
"There is a lot of tension here and now some NGOs have withdrawn staff. The female doctors working with some organisations were very useful as women felt comfortable going to them or taking children, but many, including some working with the Red Cross, have now left," confirmed Asad Tanoli, a social activist in Mansehra who has in the past volunteered with various groups.
A growing problem
Yet the unrest triggered by the Red Mosque siege goes well beyond the quake-affected area, fuelling insecurity in other parts of NWFP as well. In Dir, to the west of the NWFP, NGOs, especially those engaged in efforts to set up schools for girls, have reported incidences of harassment, prompting local authorities to step up security for groups active in the area.
Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
|On 27 July, the same day the government attempted to re-open the Red Mosque for Friday prayers, at least 15 people were killed by a suicide bomber in Aapara market in the heart of Islamabad|
There are also fears that as the Pakistan government furthers its efforts against extremist elements in the country, more violence and terrorist attacks will follow.
On 27 July, the same day the government attempted to re-open the Red Mosque for prayers, another 15 people were killed when a suicide bomber blew himself up in Islamabad’s busy commercial district of Aapara just down the street.
And while this latest wave of suicide attacks in towns across the NWFP appears to be targeting Pakistan army forces or government installations, the repercussions of what has transpired in Islamabad are already spreading across the country, with international aid workers as far a field as southwestern Balochistan Province, badly affected by recent flooding, also expressing concern.
NGOs concerned about rising insecurity