Saturday, October 29, 2005

Pakistan Earthquake

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Observations of relief operations: The best and the worst.

(originally published in Pakistani English daily Dawn )

By Ayaz Amir

GO see for yourselves, as I have done this past week, and you would repeat Dickens’s opening salvo in A Tale of Two Cities: it was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

Only in our case it has been a tale of two countries: the native half of Pakistan at its best, the instruments of Pakistani governance at their worst. The dichotomy couldn’t be starker nor the lines of this divide more clearly drawn across the very soul of Pakistan.

Pakistanis in the mass never had much faith or trust in their governments before. But whatever was left of this feeling lies buried with the other debris of this earthquake.

Why are Pakistanis in their thousands willing to travel all the way to Balakot or Muzaffarabad to deliver relief goods but reluctant to hand over anything to any government agency? Why are they willing to give to such organizations as Jamaat-ut-Dawaah, the Jamaat-i-Islami’s Al-Khidmat or the Edhi Foundation but not to the President’s Relief Fund? Because of this profound distrust which has only deepened after seeing the government’s response to this crisis.

From Hazara to Azad Kashmir voices arising from the deepest recesses of the heart will tell you how grateful they are to the people of Pakistan who came unbidden in their hour of need. I heard this in Balakot amidst the ruins and I heard this in Muzaffarabad. But as God is my witness in all this wide arc of disaster not one word, not a single one, did I hear in praise of the government or the army.

Having been in uniform myself, I say this with a heavy heart. Why have things come to this? In 1971 wherever we went people greeted us, waved at us, gave us food and offered help. Helping the army was considered a privilege and even when Dhaka fell and our eastern command laid down its arms, they didn’t blame us soldiers, they said we had been stabbed in the back. People held Yahya Khan and his coterie (and their serious tippling) responsible for the debacle, not the army as a whole. It all seems so long ago.

That the government was slow to respond is by now generally accepted. But that’s in the past and there’s no use crying over it. What is alarming, and quite difficult to understand is the government’s continuing failure to treat this disaster on a war footing. It is bigger, far bigger than the ‘65 war, bigger than 1971. But you wouldn’t guess this from the designer suits or relaxed countenances of Pakistani officialdom.

Balakot and Muzaffarabad may be overflowing with relief goods but much of it is not reaching the mountains which still remain cut off. The road from Balakot to Naran has yet to be opened and it’s not easy given the nature of the terrain. The road from Muzaffarabad to Ath Maqam (close to the Line of Control) has been cleared by army engineers for about 10 or 12 kilometres. The rest of it is still closed. Some trucks (including those of the UN’s World Food Programme) are carrying food as far as they can. For the rest, villagers have to trek across the mountains.

I asked some of the villagers carrying a single bag of flour on their shoulders how long it would take them to reach their villages. One said eight hours, another 16 hours. In Kashmir distance is measured not by kilometres but by the time it takes to reach your destination. Helicopters are the only alternative but there are not enough of them around. You see them flying to and fro but this is far from the Berlin airlift that this disaster actually requires. Our American friends for their part have still not been able to match action to words. They were the ones who could have given us the most helicopters but for some reason — no doubt associated with the ongoing mess of ‘the war on terror’ — have chosen not to.

Just in the past few days USAid and the Pakistan government have signed an agreement worth eight million dollars for the ‘capacity-enhancing’ of the national and provincial assemblies. We may need more helicopters but the US embassy has still has its heart set on some of its cherished priorities. Bemusing but there it is.

This crisis has demonstrated that the Punjab government is in a class of its own. Talking of which is there no way known to man to curb the publicity craze of its chief minister Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi? Not a day goes by without his public relations guys, surely the most successful PR outfit in the country, writing creative fiction for his greater glory.

When the earthquake struck he was in London and his concern for the victims was so great that instead of returning immediately to Pakistan, as lesser mortals might have done, he flew off straight to Washington where he stayed for a series of medical tests and a round of iftar dinners, his tour lasting 12 days, this when thousands and thousands were trapped in rubble or debris. If there was any higher justice in Pakistan he would be served with a gagging order.

Much the same is true of the rest of the civilian government. Anything by the name of government is not to be seen in the quake-hit areas. But newspapers are full of the exploits of Shaukat Aziz and his army of cabinet ministers. Seen against the backdrop of what has actually happened, this craze for publicity looks positively obscene. If these ministers are up to no good, they can at least spare the nation their antics.

But the question is: if anything by the name of organized government is not visible in the disaster zone, what is? Well, we have received prompt help from abroad and this can be seen with the naked eye: Saudi help, UAE military hospital, Qatar military hospital, field hospital from Iran, countless western NGOs, Helping Hands from the UK very active, WFP as I’ve already said, the French seen here and there, the US delivering supplies at Chaklala and, from what I hear, being amongst the most efficient in unloading the planes — the Americans coming equipped with their own forklifts and having enough soldiers not to need any help from the Pakistan authorities — tented villages from Turkey (brave, generous Turkey), the Chinese, doctors from Taiwan, doctors from Indonesia, a large medical contingent from Cuba, some world-class surgeons from Russia (at the Children’s Hospital in Islamabad I was told that the Russians were just marvellous — they arrived at the airport at four in the morning and insisted that they be taken straight to the operation theatre, working with so much commitment and singlemindedness that they seemed scarcely made of flesh and blood) and so many other countries that it’s hard to list all of them. To understand the full scope of this assistance, you have to see it with your own eyes.

And then the Pakistani nation which in the midst of this crisis seems to have rediscovered itself. Knowing the myriad rivers of corruption which run through everyday life in Pakistan, you wouldn’t have considered this possible but it has happened and it is unbelievable, a tide of assistance channelled to Balakot and Muzaffarabad by a river of people acting on blind impulse.

Much of this assistance was disorganized and chaotic but that perhaps is what was needed in those first few days when people in the stricken areas were just sitting out in the open, grateful for whatever they got. But now the relief effort is more organized. And guess who is in the forefront of this organizing? Islamist organizations such as Jamaat-ut-Daawah (the latest incarnation of Hafiz Muhammad Saeed’s famous Lashkar-i-Taiba), Al-Khidmat of course, Al Badr, Al Rasheed Trust, Al Mustafa Trust and the MQM. At the Muzaffarabad Press Club, its building all fallen, the highest praise was reserved for Jamaat-ut-Dawaah and the MQM.

Indeed the MQM’s relief camp, which is the base camp for its relief operations in Azad Kashmir, is set up just in front of the Press Club. I saw it and was moved by the way they were handling the relief effort, their volunteers going to the outlying areas, there giving chits to those in need, and, on the basis of those chits, handing out relief goods. There was a huge stock of medicines and food inside while doctors were attending to the sick. I was told that trucks carrying relief supplies were coming from Karachi every day. For the first time in my life (and I hope it is the last) I felt like saying, “Jiye Altaf”.

The Jamaat-ut-Dawaah’s camp to the north of the city, on a piece of sloping ground by the River Neelum, is a picture of precision and organization. Tents for the injured, about 40 tents for displaced persons, a mobile surgical unit in which when I arrived a team of Indonesian doctors was performing surgery, a mountain of relief goods, and again a very methodical system of relief distribution. Inside one of the tents was 9-year-old Akbar Jahan from village Padgam who had been rescued after lying trapped in a mudslide for 15 days. Withered and thin as a reed, she was complaining of pain in one of her arms, but was otherwise all right. Who says miracles don’t happen?

Dawaah volunteers were going to inaccessible areas and there assessing relief needs. Again on the basis of the chits they issued, the recipients could collect relief from the base camp. When I was out on the road to Ath Maqam and asked my vehicle to turn around because I found the precipice falling sharply to the Neelum River a bit too scary, I saw a band of young men in the distance marching briskly in our direction. With good walking boots on and carrying sleeping bags, they looked very tough and kept almost racing up the slope even as I asked them which organization they were from. “Jamaat-ut-Dawaah,” came the muffled answer. So they hadn’t been bluffing when they told me their boys went up into the mountains. I don’t much care for Hafiz Saeed’s theology, much too stark and cut-and-dried for my taste. But by God his boys are impressive.

Next to the Al Khidmat camp, again by the banks of the swift-flowing Neelum, I chanced upon another discovery, a very well-laid-out relief camp, guarded by boys from the Hizbul Mujahideen (the largest of the Kashmiri resistance outfits led by long-beard Maulvi Salahuddin), obviously rich with relief supplies, and doling out relief in a very organized manner. It turned out this was the base camp of the Sialkot-based Mutayab-ul-Islam Foundation. Again assistance was being given on the basis of chits handed out by Foundation volunteers trekking to cut-off villages. Each relief package contained flour, rice, ghee, etc, a new blanket, new (not second hand) winter jackets, (proper jackets that you wouldn’t be ashamed of wearing) and, better believe this, shoes according to size. I actually heard them asking what size of foot before providing the required size.

Tough-looking Farid Khan Tareen (the last person with whom I would like to get into a fistfight) said that the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce and Industry and individual Sialkot industrialists were sending these supplies by truck regularly and, Alhamdolillah, there was no danger of the supplies running short. More glory to the city of Sialkot.

This is the Hamas phenomenon happening in Pakistan, organized authority (in the case of Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, in our case, the organs of government) able to do very little, while the burden of social work (in this case relief work) is taken up by Islamist organizations. What this portends, I don’t know.

Can anyone please explain this? The total number of patients after the quake in both civil and military hospitals in Abbottabad, Mansehra, Balakot and Muzaffarabad, at any one time, was never more than 8,000-10,000. And yet most of these patients were being fed and provided beds and beddings not by the government, not by the army but by foreign and local charity. In Mansehra District Headquarters Hospital, the first large tents were set up by some French organization (I couldn’t get the name), beds were provided by Al Khidmat, food by the citizens of Mansehra while the first batch of outside surgeons, led by Dr Ayub Tanoli, came from the Jinnah Post-graduate Medical Centre, Karachi.

Staff there was full of praise for these doctors, indeed saying that when doom lay around them, they kept the hospital going. Lest I forget, I was told there were three Hindu doctors among the Karachi team.

In the Ayub Medical College in Abbottabad where patients were lying outside in tents because the building had been declared unsafe, tents and medicine had been provided, I am sure among others, by Helping Hands (UK). Sitting at the tented distribution centre were volunteers from Sargodha.

The private Jamila Shaheen Hospital in Abbottabad was full of quake victims (130-140). Looking after them was a team of young Pakistan-origin doctors from the UK. I tried putting a few questions to them but they had no time to talk and went about their business in what seemed like a mad rush. I was told they worked from eight in the morning until well past midnight. For iftar they took only a single date and a packet of fruit juice so as to remain alert in the operating theatre.

The fathers of three young kids — Abdul Wali from Kanar Sharif, Kala Dhaka, Kulsoom from Alai, Batagram, Daanish from Sangar, Balakot — told me that doctors at the Military Hospital, Abbottabad, and Ayub Medical College had advised various amputations but they refused and instead came here. The team of UK doctors operated on all of them and saved their hands, feet, etc. Daanish, especially, was operated on for seven hours at a stretch and his hand was saved.

I was told that a few days back a Dr Nadeem had come from Karachi and a Dr Craig from the UK. About Craig I was told that he cleaned floors and bathrooms himself.

Is any of this important? Perhaps it is. While I was writing this column I placed a call to the office of Director-General, Surgery, at the Combined Military Hospital, Rawalpindi, and also at the private clinic of CEO of all Allied Hospitals in Rawalpindi and Principal Rawalpindi Medical College, saying I wanted a private appointment with the doctors. At both places I was given appointments. I was overcome by shame. Here are doctors coming to help us from all over our world and here our renowned doctors, on the state’s payroll, can’t leave their private practices aside even during this grave hour when calamity has struck the nation.

No one will believe a word about government credibility unless, immediately, an announcement is made cancelling (1) the F-16 deal which we don’t need and at this juncture certainly can’t afford; (2) the new GHQ being built in Islamabad which again we don’t need; and (3) the New Murree Project being pushed by Pervaiz Elahi, a project which will ruin forever what remains of the splendour of the Murree Hills. This earthquake has cut mountains in half, it has sent entire villages into the valleys and rivers below, but has been unable to cause even a minor dent in the hearts of some people.

But as I say, the best and the worst lie close together. As we left Muzaffarabad, there was a sight to warm the cockles of even a withered heart. Directing traffic at a tunnel through which only a single line of vehicles could pass was, at one end, Qamar, student of class nine, and, at the other, young Munir, all of ten years. They were doing it beautifully and when I stopped to enquire, Munir, looking up at me, said, “Uncle, the military police were doing duty all day and now they have just gone for a few minutes to take iftar.” Dabbing my eyes with a handkerchief, I patted them on the head and getting into my car sped away into the darkness.

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