Why would someone bomb a World Food Program office?

Notes from different corners of the world.
Oct. 7 2009 1:45 PM

Biting the U.N. That Feeds

The madness of bombing a World Food Program office.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—It is hard to imagine a more bestial act. Even on the scale of brutality and disregard for human lives prevalent in the conflict raging across Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan, the suicide bomber who struck the Islamabad office of the World Food Program, the United Nations' food agency, deserves the label abhorrent. Five people are dead at the time of writing—including two Pakistani women, one who greeted visitors to the compound and one who helped organize food-aid convoys, and an Iraqi man who helped to manage the WFP's operation in Pakistan. Others are badly injured.

All this pointless carnage was produced by a person who was almost certainly related to someone who depends on food aid from WFP.

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Given the dramatic situation of millions of Pakistanis who were, or still are, displaced by military operations against the Taliban in places like Swat, Dir, Buner, Bajaur, and Mohmand, hundreds of thousands have been, or are, relying on the WFP to ensure their families don't go hungry. Pakistani families are generous and extended, so the bomber undoubtedly has peaceable relatives kept alive by the WFP.

Was the suicide bomber from the Swat Valley? There, other than in the main town of Mingora, life is still not safe or normal. Food shortages and hunger are reported from the still-volatile north. On the road to Mingora the other day, we saw many, many food distribution points with hundreds of men jostling around them, waiting for desperately needed WFP aid.

Or perhaps the suicide bomber was from somewhere closer to Peshawar? In a temporary unofficial settlement there, we met 24-year-old Masina, who had tried to return to her hometown in Swat, where her husband tended maize and wheat fields. But the curfew there makes tending the fields impossible. The family decided to flee again and is now in Mardan, just south of Peshawar, surviving on food packages (lentils, red beans, oil, wheat, sugar, and salt) supplied by the World Food Program.

A UNICEF tent in Jalozai, Pakistan. Click image to expand.
A UNICEF tent in Jalozai, Pakistan

Was it someone from Bajaur or Mohmand, the tribal agencies along the Afghan border? These places suffered a great deal of damage during last year's anti-Taliban offensive—more collateral damage than from the operation in Swat this spring. More than 50,000 Pashtun tribespeople still live in the Jalozai camp outside Peshawar, where until last year—when they were made to move out by the Pakistanis—some of Pakistan's 2 million remaining Afghan refugees lived. In a big tent set up in Jalozai by UNICEF, we met with representatives from Bajauri and Mohmandi clans, all obvious beneficiaries of the World Food Program.

In the end, the ethnicity, religion, or political affiliation of the person who attacked the WFP offices in Islamabad doesn't matter much. It's enough to say that it was a person who needed food and whose family needs food. Since the beginning of September alone, the World Food Program has provided 33,421 metric tons of food to 2.3 million displaced persons in camps; people who stay with friends, relatives, or strangers; as well as those who have returned to their homes.

The staff of the United Nations and of the other U.N. agencies and NGOs are there to alleviate the suffering of the local population. Like our organization, they are impartial. Their sole reason for being in Pakistan is to assist those in need. Biting the hand that feeds isn't just bestial; it's madness.

Anna Husarska is senior policy adviser at the International Rescue Committee. Mike Young is country director of the IRC's Pakistan program.

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