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Terrorism-Linked Charity Finds New Life Amid Pakistan Refugee Crisis

6 minute read
Omar Waraich / Mardan

Just five months after Pakistan banned Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) over its links to the terrorist organization blamed for last November’s Mumbai massacre, the Islamist charity group’s flags are flying high over a relief effort for refugees fleeing the fighting in the Swat Valley. The banned group’s signature black-and-white banner bearing a scimitar flew in the heart of Mardan as tens of thousands of refugees poured into the northwest garrison town, fleeing the military campaign to oust the Taliban from Swat and its surroundings.

The JuD flags are being flaunted by a group with a different name: “We are with the Falah-e-Insaniat [Human Welfare] Foundation,” Jafar Khan, a volunteer, told TIME. “We used to be known as Jamaat-ud-Dawa. We are doing the work that the government is not here to do.” Volunteers told TIME that their well-resourced relief operation includes a network of ambulances, emergency camps on the edges of the fighting and a steady stream of food and medicine. It was precisely this type of welfare work — filling the vacuum left by the absence of state aid to suffering Pakistanis in the wake of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake — that made it so politically risky for authorities to close down JuD last December. And the role of Islamist organizations in providing relief underscores the difficulty Pakistan faces in coping with the displacement of an estimated 1.3 million people by military action against the Taliban.

Following the Mumbai terrorism attack attributed to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the U.N. Security Council last December decreed the group’s charity affiliate, JuD, a terrorist organization, obliging Pakistan to close it down. But in Mardan on Wednesday, it was clear that the group has bounced back under a new name, and is once again building loyalty by delivering relief where the state has failed to do so. (See pictures of the military campaign in Swat.)

According to Khan, the group has established three emergency camps in the outlying areas of the conflict. “One is in Sher Gar, near the curfew,” he says, pointing toward the road that leads to Swat. “We have another in Katlangh, in Mardan district, and the third is in Rostum, in Buner.” At each of these camps, arriving refugees are offered first aid, water, rice, lentils and juice. In total, 600 people are fed each day. Rapidly depleting stocks are set to be replenished by supplies en route by truck from Punjab province, the group’s base and chief source of donations.

“It’s a 24-hour operation,” Khan says, adding that there are shifts with 25 volunteers at each camp at any given time. A dozen ambulances are shuttling among the emergency camps, the larger refugee camps based around Mardan and the town’s dilapidated hospitals. More may be on the way. “We have 350 ambulances around the country,” Khan proudly declares.

Doctors at District Hospital are grateful for the group’s help. “The Jamaat-ud-Dawa has been bringing the wounded in from the affected areas,” says Dr. Adnan Jamshed. The hospital, however, is struggling to cope with the mounting number of patients. “We expect more injured people to come here on a daily basis,” says Dr. Amjad Kakakhel. “We are deficient on staff, paramedics and medicines.” The ambulance parked outside his emergency room belongs to Falah-e-Insaniat’s Mardan branch. Across the side of the vehicle, a large sticker bears the JuD flag and a message advertising its operations in the northwest areas of “Buner, Dir, Swat and the tribal areas.”

Traveling with the ambulances are “mobile teams of doctors,” says Fazal-e-Azim, who describes himself as a member of Falah-e-Insaniat’s medical wing. The thickly bearded doctor says the group works closely with the Islamic Medical Association, which is affiliated with Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Pakistan’s largest Islamist political party. JI’s charitable wing, the Khidmat Foundation, has also asserted its presence amid the relief effort. “We also have our own organization, the Muslim Medical Mission,” says Azim.

Falah-e-Insaniat has recently expanded its operations, distributing medical supplies and food at the local schools that now house refugees. “We are also putting together a list of families in the area,” says Khan, furnishing a detailed list of recent arrivals in the area. “Our people go out and survey to find out who needs help.”

After banning JuD, Pakistani authorities had vowed to prevent the group from re-emerging under a new guise. Despite overtly displaying the symbols of the banned organization, and the fact that its volunteers make no secret of a link to JuD, Falah-e-Insaniat appears to be operating unimpeded by authorities. “Jamaat-ud-Dawa came under pressure, but not Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation,” said a volunteer, who gave his name only as Sufian. Government officials contacted about the presence of JuD flags in Mardan promised to investigate the matter. Later, a senior government official said, “The Interior Ministry has directed that no banned organization will be allowed to resume activities, even under the garb of humanitarian service.”

“The religious groups are now making their space where the government is nowhere to be seen,” says Aftab Sherpao, a former Interior Minister. “It is never a good sign when they are able to use such situations to increase their influence.” The proximity between JuD and Falah-e-Insaniat that is described by the group’s own members also raises questions about Islamabad’s enforcement of its crackdown on charities linked with extremist groups. “Banning Jamaat-ud-Dawa was just eyewash,” says Sherpao of the current government. “They just wanted to show the world that they were doing something.”

Over his traditional shalwar kameez tunic, the young man named Sufian wears a khaki vest sporting two badges. On the right side is JuD’s logo; on the left is Falah-e-Insaniat’s logo, which is red with an umbrella depicted over the group’s name to symbolize the shelter it provides.

“We do this work for the sake of Allah,” Sufian says, not distinguishing between JuD and Falah-e-Insaniat. “We went to help the victims of the tsunami in Sri Lanka, even though they were Hindus. We went to Iran after the earthquake there, even though they are Shi’ite. Our most famous work was in the days after the [2005] Kashmir earthquake.” Do they use relief work as an opportunity to proselytize? “Yes, wherever we can, we ask people to become Muslims,” he says. “They are impressed by our good work.”

Asked if his group operates legally, Sufian reaches into a pocket to produce a folded piece of paper that he says is a photocopy of the charity’s registration certificate. According to the document, “FALAH-E-ANSANIAT FOUNDATION” was registered as a charity in Lahore on “19th April 2007,” a year and a half before JuD was banned. A telephone call to the head office was redirected to Yahya Mujahid, who described himself as the “spokesman for Jamaat-ud-Dawa”; he confirmed his group’s “close links” with Falah-e-Insaniat but declined to take any further questions.

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