Earthquake disaster exposes failures of government and deep divides in Pakistani society

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Disasters, whether natural or manmade, bring out both the best and worst in people. The earthquake that rocked Northern Pakistan and Azad Kashmir on October 8 has brought out the generous spirit of Pakistan’s people and exposed the ineptitude of Pakistan’s government. The military, whose only argument for ruling the country rests on its alleged competence, has been shown to be a bunch of flintstone cops. With at least tens of thousands of people dead (the government’s figures have gradually climbed to 79,000 but relief agencies, including the Edhi Trust and our own sources in the affected areas, say that there have been 300,000 or more deaths, and 3.5 million displaced from their homes), the scale of the disaster comes into focus. Even the UN has described it as a greater catastrophe than the tsunami of last December.

Entire cities and towns simply disappeared when the quake, which had a strength of 7.6 on the Richter scale, shook the region for six minutes on the morning of October 8. In Muzaffarabad, the capital of Azad Kashmir, between 70 and 80 percent of all buildings have collapsed, as have those in Rawlakot and Bagh; Balakot and Garhi Habibullah in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) have virtually disappeared. In Balakot only 200 of a total of 700 children in three schools were pulled out alive, many of them badly injured. The scale of death and destruction is overwhelming; most of the victims were women because they were in their homes, and children at school. An entire generation has been almost wiped out.

Because of the magnitude of this catastrophe and difficulties of terrain and weather, even two weeks after the earthquake some 20 percent of the affected villages had not been delivered any relief supplies. One needs knowledge of the topography and geography of the country to understand the problem. Most villages in the region are not linked by road; they are perched on mountain slopes or in valleys that are miles away from any road. Villagers lead isolated lives, living on fruit and grain from their farms, and meat, milk and cheese from domestic animals. Most houses are built of loose stone, and thus are especially vulnerable to earthquakes; a much smaller quake in the same area in December 1974 resulted in 10,000 deaths. Traditionally, villagers stock up food for the harsh winter months (the area will be blanketed by snow within a few weeks), when they are completely cut off from the rest of the world.

People from many villages had not been seen near the main roads even two weeks after the quake. This can mean one of three things. Either these villages and their people are unaffected by the quake (unlikely, given its strength); or everyone in these villages was killed. This is not likely: men doing tasks in the open had the best opportunity to survive. What is most probable is that the vast majority are dead and the rest so badly injured that they cannot get to the main roads to seek help. For example, some rescue teams that reached a remote village in Azad Kashmir on October 23 found that there were only four survivors out of a population of several hundred.

There is little doubt that the government’s slow reaction and lack of coordination made worse an already very bad situation. As one resident of Bagh put it, “The only aid we have seen is on television.” It is also true that the government did not, and still does not, have the resources to deal with the aftermath, and that outside help is desperately needed; but its failings, especially the military’s, are still glaring. For four days the military top brass and government ministers were on television offering excuses for their inaction. Hurricane Katrina was a useful prop: if a superpower could not provide timely help to Katrina’s victims, what could a poor country like Pakistan do? Had these excuse-mongers spent half as much time organising and sending relief, almost certainly more lives could have been saved.

A more relevant comparison would have been with neighbouring Iran, which is prone to earthquakes. There, the government’s response to each disaster has been swift and exemplary. The Pakistani disaster required the mobilization of all available resources, especially helicopters, immediately. For several days the military made only seven out of a fleet of 48 available for relief work; the rest were flying sorties in Waziristan, attacking and killing Pakistan’s own people to please Uncle Sam. In other countries, both civilian and military officials would be tried for war crimes, atrocities, negligence or incompetence for such behaviour, but not in the army’s “enlightened” and “moderate Islamic Republic” of Pakistan, ruled by general Pervez Musharraf. How is it that individuals and local groups–”Edhi Trust, Al-Khidmat, HELPP and others–”were able to reach the affected areas within hours of the quake, and got busy digging out those trapped under tons of rubble, and providing food, water, blankets and medicines, while the government’s machinery was absent? The military has a commanding presence in the affected areas: in Kashmir there are an estimated 250,000 troops; at the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul (Abbotabad), several hundred cadets were sent home instead of being pressed into service for relief work. It would have done these gentlemen cadets a world of good, but perhaps they are being trained to give orders, not to give help.

There was also mismanagement of scarce resources. Starting with general Musharraf, everyone who thought he was somebody in Pakistan commandeered a helicopter to tour the devastated areas, while the people below looked up hoping for help that did not come. When Ayaz Amir, a popular Pakistani columnist, wrote about governmental ineptitude in his Friday column in Dawn (October 14), he was roundly criticized. The reason was not that he was wrong; his fault was that he had got it right: the powers that be and the chattering classes cannot afford to have their incompetence pointed out, especially in an English-language newspaper whose website is accessible worldwide.

Equally conspicuous was the absence of the Western-financed Pakistani NGOs, whose expertise is holding seminars in fancy hotels in Islamabad to prattle about the plight of the poor. These NGOs specialise in producing glossy brochures and slick websites to show their foreign sponsors what a wonderful job they are doing. When the earthquake struck these NGOs and their West-adoring bosses went into hibernation. The closest they will ever come to soiling their Gucci shoes and delicately manicured hands will be at yet another seminar in Islamabad or Lahore to exclaim about how much they have been traumatized themselves by the earthquake and its consequences. What they will not say is that they watched the tragedy on television in the comfort of their drawing rooms while tucking into enormous amounts of food. Yet these same people dare to criticize Islamic organizations that are involved in relief work, accusing them of exploiting the tragedy for political ends.

Although the government has appointed a major general to oversee relief work, there is little coordination or order. Islamabad airport is clogged with supplies, but there are not enough helicopters to ferry the stuff to outlying villages in the NWFP or Kashmir, where it is most needed. Gangsters, official as well as unofficial, are busy looting these resources for private profit. In Azad Kashmir the son of a minister hijacked two truckloads of supplies at gunpoint in broad daylight. Others have attacked convoys en route to the affected areas.

Then there is the perennial problem of ministers, generals and members of parliament who insist on visiting the injured in field hospitals (Muzaffarabad’s three hospitals were destroyed; in Balakot, all 60 doctors perished in the quake). Ministers and generals insist on flying in in helicopters (these have become the latest status symbol), accompanied by their hangers-on and an army of television crews. At the makeshift hospitals, doctors are expected to abandon patient care and lay out lavish receptions for the visiting dignitaries. Fed up with these disruptions, the doctors have sent an urgent plea to the government asking that they be spared ministerial visits. At a cabinet meeting on October 22 prime minister Shaukat Aziz called upon his ministers to avoid using helicopters for such trips, but did not tell them to stop their circus from descending on field hospitals. In Pakistan it is vitally important to be seen to be important; the small men who occupy ministerial posts have to demonstrate their importance to their families and hangers-on, which is hardly likely to be achieved if they travel by car or miss an opportunity to be photographed visiting the injured in field hospitals to enhance their ‘image’.

Pakistan’s worst disaster ever has exposed the deep divide that has always existed between the government and the governed. The government consists of people who simply usurp the resources of the state for their personal use and prestige; they feel no sense of obligation toward the people, but only to their families and power-base. The only time the people’s involvement is allowed is when the government needs their help. This has always been a one-way street. The government feels no obligation to provide services to the people on whose behalf it claims to be governing.

One final point is in order. Governments around the world have pledged varying amounts of aid. If past disasters are any guide–”the tsunami last year, the earthquake in Bam (Iran) in December 2003, and so on–”little of this will actually turn up. The UN has already complained that of the US$312 million pledged by various governments for Pakistan’s earthquake victims, only some $79 million has so far been delivered. In the case of the tsunami, the estimated $5 billion pledged have still not been given, although it is now almost a year since that disaster. Equally glaring is the failure of the international community after the Bam earthquake: of the $1 billion pledged, only $26 million (2.6 percent) have actually been delivered to Iran, according to the UN. People’s grief and hardship create great photo-opportunities, but these seldom translate into cash — or not for the victims.

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