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'Princess of Swat' holds court

A member of Pakistan's former royal family returns home in her people's time of need.

ISLAMABAD — When Zebunisa Jillani visits the camps established for Swat refugees in Islamabad, her face becomes etched with sorrow and pain at seeing the suffering around her. For this 56-year-old, the story of Swat is the story of her life. 

Had Swat continued to maintain its status as a princely state, Jillani — a member of the Wali family, the original rulers of Swat, akin to royalty — would have settled down in the scenic valley as one of its royal princesses. But in 1969, more than two decades after the Indian subcontinent was partitioned, creating Pakistan and India, Swat was fully merged into greater Pakistan. From that time on, Swat has been governed by the federation of Pakistan, while the Wali family has been stripped of any royal privileges but allowed to keep their honorific and continue to be regarded with great respect and love in the valley.

Though Jillani settled in the United States with her husband, an MIT graduate, she has recently been drawn back, propelled by news of the refugee crisis there.

“Swat runs in my blood,” she said, pushing stray strands of gray hair off her face and smiling pensively. “When I saw the pictures, read the headlines and heard the stories, I knew I had to come and help. I just had to.”

Though the beautifully furnished but modest apartment in Islamabad where Jillani is spending her time is a far cry from the palace she grew up in, she is by comparison to many of her compatriots living like royalty. Most of the estimated 3 million refugees who have fled the fighting in Swat and surrounding areas are enduring Pakistan’s sweltering summers in tent dwellings or living in cramped quarters with friends or relatives. Only 200,000 refugees have been lucky enough to find space in a tent camp, according to figures from the Red Cross.

The mass exodus of Swatis from the valley has been described by the United Nations as the “world's most dramatic displacement crisis since the Rwandan genocide of 1994.” Returning from a three-day trip to the refugee camps in mid-May, the UNHCR head Antonio Guterres described the displacement crisis as "one of the most dramatic of recent times." In a statement issued by the U.N. agency he said, relief workers were "struggling to keep up with the size and speed of the displacement.”

Though the U.S. has already pledged $110 million in aid to the refugees, and President Barack Obama is pushing to send another $200 million, for now a vast majority of the Internally Displaced Persons are without food, clean drinking water and adequate clothes, while children remain without access to schools or medical care.

It was this dire situation that propelled Jillani back. During her visits to the camps she is sometimes recognized as the Wali’s granddaughter and sees elderly women burst into tears and kissing her hands on realizing who she is. But for the most part she covers herself with a chaddor and moves amongst the crowds anonymously, eager to do the best she can.

“I’m concentrating on health services for now,” she said, and describes her work in Mardan and Charsadda. She has already established two mobile health units which provide refugees with free medicines and health care. In keeping with her grandfather’s philosophy, she is making concerted efforts to only hire Swati nurses and doctors. “He always believed that the way to prosperity was for Swatis to encourage Swatis: that’s what I wish to do.”

Though the only royal working at the forefront to provide assistance to refugees from Swat, Jillani is far from the only woman working in the refugee camps.