Dr Mohammad Ayaz and his huge extended family were respectable professionals back in Swat but they were forced to flee with hundreds of thousands of others when the Pakistan army operation began earlier this month against the Taliban who had taken over the area. On Sunday the Pakistani interior ministry claimed that over 1,000 militants had been killed in the offensive so far.
Over 1 million from Swat and two adjoining districts, Dir and Buner, also subject to anti-Taliban operations, have run from their homes to become “internally displaced people”. But over 90 per cent of them are staying with friends, family and in some cases strangers, not in the camps that have hurriedly sprouted to accommodate them.
“We are all poor now,” said Dr Ayaz, surrounded by dozens of children of his siblings and cousins. “We are human beings, not animals. Give us back our self-respect, we are Pashtuns, we are Muslims, we cannot shed our self-respect.”
The 93 family members are packed into five rooms, spread between two modest houses that belong to cousins in Malakand Top, a village just south of Swat. They said that have received no aid. Those living outside of camps have been largely ignored by aid agencies, the government and the media. But the plight of Dr Ayaz, whose family used in live in seven houses within a single compound in Saidu Sharif, Swat, is not unusual.
Huge families are now dependent on the charity of friends and family, who are often poor themselves. Aid workers warn that the situation is unsustainable and many of these refugees could be driven into the camps, as their hosts would not be able to cope with the financial burden for months on end. Across the North West Frontier Province, families are squeezing into one room, in order to cater for the deluge of desperate relatives who have descended on them.
In Jalala village, outside Mardan, the nearest major city to Swat, Alamgir Khan has come with 25 family members. They are being put up by an uncle in four rooms. He said that he had also been forced to borrow around R45,000 (£400), a considerable sum in Pakistan, from his uncle, to buy bedding, clothes and eating utensils.
“We came with nothing,” said Mr Khan, 26. “They (our hosts) will get fed up with us eventually. Then I don’t know what we’ll do but I have faith in God that something will turn up for us.”
The Pashtun people of Swat and the NWFP province, the same ethnic group that dominates Afghanistan, have proud traditions of hospitality. Without their generosity, the refugee influx from Swat would have been overwhelming. Aid agencies and the government are now trying to figure out a system to help those – the vast majority – who are being accommodated by friends and family.
There are distribution points where registered refugees who are not in camps can pick up non-food items, though most don’t seem to know about this service.
Ariane Rummery, a spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), which is at the forefront of the aid effort, said: “We recognise that we’re certainly not reaching everyone.”