November Issue 2005

By | News & Politics | Published 18 years ago

The earthquake has taken a heavy human toll — around two hundred thousand — and its trail of destruction and destitution for over three hundred million people in a radius of 28,000 sq kms, is there in all its horror for everyone to see. Less visible is the man-made disaster: the handling of the quake’s aftermath at the hands of the government.

The seeds of mismanagement were sown on the day that mountains shook and the earth opened, and villages upon villages were wiped out. The communication system broke down and all standard operating procedures of the feedback process simply melted away. The most stark example was Azad Jammu and Kashmir, where the entire frontline of the Pakistan army’s deployment and infrastructure turned into dust in a matter of five minutes. The back-end support system too was badly hit and for the next 12 hours there was a frantic effort to assess the damage in these areas.

General Pervez Musharraf was informed of the severity of the earthquake in the first two hours; but there was little information available on the extent of damage.

The ISI’s satellite imagery only told a partial story; while it showed visible evidence of landslides, broken roads and absent military deployments, its verticle view did not catch the damnation that hid beneath the tin roofs that had come down crushing the inmates. Even the dead and the injured piling up at the Qasim Base Rawalpindi, flown in from different areas, did not present the true picture. Helicopters were then sent up for a more detailed look: the news they brought back was unbelievable.

Muzaffarabad was broken, Bagh was flattened and areas right up to Chakoti and the valleys were reduced to mounds of debris. The information flow from the north western side of the country, the Hazara division, the area closest to the epicenter, was trickling in, but the powers that be were concentrating on Azad Kashmir. Local politicians in Batagram and Mansehra say that they had conveyed initial estimates of the damage caused by the earthquake in the first 24 hours to the provincial government. Information regarding Balakot, a picturesque tehsil of Mansehra, that sank like a stone in water, spoke of thousands of deaths. Yet data processing took considerable time in a system used to the luxury of long meetings and ill-prepared to deal with a crisis of this magnitude. On the day of earthquake, the President of Pakistan could only visit a fallen tower in Islamabad which, to most policymakers in Islamabad, including prime minister Shaukat Aziz, was still the most dominant, yet misleading, symbol of the earthquake’s ultimate havoc.

And this despite the fact that in the first twelve hours of the earthquake, TV and print journalists had made their way to every accessible nook and cranny of the disaster zone. Images were coming out and were flashed on television in abundance. Local journalists overcoming their own personal grief — over 70 mediamen have been badly affected by the earthquake, losing their homes or loved ones in the tragedy — were feverishly reporting and calling their contacts in the government to inform them of the magnitude of the calamity.

earthquake-4-nov05The night of the first day of the earthquake was a long one for General Musharraf and his close military and civilian aides. Their first instinct was to secure the now exposed frontier along the Line of Control. For the survivors of the earthquake, that first night was crucial and, for thousands, deadly. Desperate for immediate rescue and emergency aid supplies, they struggled for survival beneath the rubble, trapped inside collapsed structures, or sitting in the open looking for a government that had totally collapsed in Azad Kashmir, paralysed in the NWFP and moving at snail’s pace in Islamabad.

Day two dawned with even more death and misery because the first 24 hours had passed without any substantive aid and relief reaching these areas. Some areas were cut off from the main roads, but others, like Muzaffarbad, Bagh and Balakot were still reachable. Yet except for random relief from the community-based organisations or wholly inadequate services from the government machinery, no systematic emergency operation was in place. The situation did not change much even two days later, when relief goods coming from all corners of Pakistan, were looted and plundered, in part by desperate men and in part by thugs and malcontents from neighbouring areas. Between the second and fourth day I witnessed near-complete anarchy in Bagh and Muzaffarbad, where no government agency had stepped in to take charge of these devastated towns, now soaked in the drying blood of the earthquake victims. Two relief goods trucks that I accompanied were looted, one at Dhirkot and the other in Muzaffarabad. Meanwhile, it took the President four days to address the nation.

The army’s lack of visibility — considering that it is the only organised force that had the numbers and the logistics to fill the administrative vacuum — was arguably the most crucial factor defining, not just the relief and rescue operations, but also for restoring order and to direct and manage relief goods coming in from across the country. By the time the force was put in place, it was too late for the first victims of the tragedy. The severely injured had died, the homeless had begun to scatter and the relief effort, that had no centre for coordination, was not reaching the most needy and the desperate. The new relief commissioner took time to get going in his office; in the meanwhile foreign rescue teams of doctors, engineers and volunteers waited long hours at Chaklala Airport without any direction about their destination. The same happened to relief goods: these all piled up at the Chaklala air-base which soon began to look like a giant warehouse.

The official relief strategy got caught in the vortex of the big picture: it was monumental devastation, therefore the response also had to be big. But big things move slowly.This emergency was all about rapid response — for rescue, relief and restoring order. Unfortunately, none was forthcoming.

Even more striking and sad evidence of the slowness of the response was in the the daunting challenge of rescuing those people who were caught in the valleys of death, or perched up on perilous peaks. Helicopter-managed relief goods supplies were essentially misdirected in the sense that the communities hit by the earthquake did not need food supplies. They needed medical aid and immediate evacuation and shelter or tents. The evacuation effort was stymied by its own randomness and more crucially by the lack of any officially-backed attempt to reach out to these people from the ground. The fustian argument that “all roads and pathways are blocked,” became the official gospel that no one wanted to challenge. Yet reporters and civilian voluntary workers, who made full-blooded efforts to reach out to some of these villages, came back successful. Some even brought down the injured tied to their backs.

Desperate pleas from the locals and some in the media, to push the rescue mission from the ground by deploying more troops, including SSG and elite force commandos, fell on stony ground. As a result those who could come down on their own, did so with great difficulty, but others continued to rot under the open sky. A local doctor working with an 85-member Ukranian medical team in Besham, district Shangla, said on the 14th day after the earthquake, that nearly 60 per cent of the communities in the mountains had not been reached yet. Representatives of Unicef and the UN coordinator for emergency relief in Islamabad have already warned of “more deaths” if relief supplies and medical aid is not pushed through.

The hub of the problem is that the relief and rescue operations have all been combined under one umbrella and only the army has been tasked to manage everything. From heli-service to mule-based supplies, from media trips and photo-ops to receiving aid supplies from foreign countries, from managing ground camps to clearing the rubble on the road, the army wants to stage-manage it all. This may be gratifying for institutional pride, but it does not address the complexity of the challenge that has begun to unfold in its grimmest dimensions: disease is spreading fast, carcasses and unburied corpses have made main city areas uninhabitable; winter is setting in, while international aid, even before it could peak, has begun to suffer compassion fatigue.

Pakistan is in the midst of its deepest humanitarian crisis ever; it will become more tragic still if the response continues to be handled with regimented rigidity.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.