HIMALAYAN QUAKE

Print edition : November 04, 2005

In Pakistan, the Himalayan earthquake kills tens of thousands, leaves millions homeless to freeze in the winter, and exposes the military establishment's inability to deal with a calamity of this magnitude. While Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir suffers the most, tragedy strikes Jammu & Kashmir too.

B. MURALIDHAR REDDY in Islamabad

In Islamabad on October 14, President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz pray for the dead and the injured.-REUTERS

THE October 8 earthquake, which rocked northern Pakistan, including the whole of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK), lasted between two and five minutes. It changed the lives of millions for decades to come. It also shook the Pakistani establishment.

The trail of devastation left by the earthquake, which measured 7.6 on the Richter scale, can be gauged from cold statistics. It encompassed an area of 20,000 square kilometres. On day nine after the tragedy, the projected death toll stood at 54,000. Over 60,000 people suffered injuries of varying degrees. The quake was followed by 400-odd aftershocks, each a reminder of that horrific morning. And the counting continues with several villages still beyond reach.

With an estimated 80 per cent of the structures damaged and vulnerable, 3.3 million people in the worst-affected areas have been rendered homeless. Infrastructure has collapsed. Roads, particularly in POK, to other parts of Pakistan have been damaged heavily and those that were fully blocked were reopened only on day three. Heaps of mud and debris have contaminated virtually all sources of water.

Torrential rain repeatedly disrupted the rescue and relief operations, heightening the misery of the quake victims. The temperatures plummeted to 7 {+0} Celsius as people waited desperately for cover over their heads.

At Balakot in Pakistan, a street covered with debris of buildings.-TOMAS MUNITA/AP

Given the difficult terrain and total lack of preparedness on the part of the Pakistani establishment to meet a disaster of such dimensions, the situation can only be expected to worsen. In the words of Jan Egeland, Chief Coordinator of the United Nations Emergency Relief, "an earthquake in the Himalayan mountains before winter is a logistical nightmare". After a tour of the flattened city of Muzaffarabad, he said that in terms of impact, the October 8 earthquake was worse than the Asian tsunami on December 26, 2004.

However, he seemed to disagree with the assessment of the Pakistani establishment that it had more than sufficient helicopters at its disposal to reach the villages cut off from the rest of the world. "We clearly need more helicopters to get to those who have got nothing. A second disaster should be avoided," he told a news conference in Islamabad on day seven.

Egeland said that perhaps very few countries had witnessed a disaster of such magnitude. "These are tragedies that occur once in a generation," he said and emphasised the need for proper management and coordination of immediate relief operations. Much to the dismay of the kith and kin of those trapped under collapsed houses, Egeland said the rescue phase was over. "Miracles do happen, but in the realistic sense the phase of search and rescue is over. Now we need to move on to the phase of reaching out to those who are out in the open without shelter, food, water and medicines," he said.

Pakistani soldiers to the aid of victims in Balakot.-ASIF HASSAN

President Pervez Musharraf appealed for help from the rest of the world. "We do seek international assistance. We have enough manpower, but we need financial support," he said. And the world responded with doctors, medicines, helicopters, food, blankets, tents and sniffer dogs, besides money. By October 17, the world had pledged $478 million.

Musharraf, in his address to the people, concurred with the view that his country did not have enough helicopters to meet the challenge. The U.S. sent eight military helicopters with supplies and pledged $50 million. The helicopters are helping to ferry supplies and rescue teams to inaccessible areas.

At the Ayub Medical Complex in Abbottabad town, victims wait to be treated.-LEFTERIS PITARAKIS/AP

After initial reluctance, Pakistan decided to accept aid from India. Israel has also offered assistance despite not having diplomatic relations with Pakistan. Canada announced a $300,000 donation and subsequently raised it to $20 million. Britain, which has a large Pakistani community, pledged an initial amount of 1 million and sent two rescue teams to the region. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he had instructed all parts of the U.N. system to give all possible assistance. The International Committee of the Red Cross said it aimed to provide emergency food and shelter to people stranded in the freezing autumn conditions.

More flights carrying rescuers and aid were expected from Russia, the U.S., Iran and other countries, Pakistan Foreign Office spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said. "International assistance is pouring in and we are grateful."

In Muzaffarabad, with his injured daughter.-KIMIMASA MAYAMA/REUTERS

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) offered troops, aircraft and humanitarian aid and said it could act as a clearing-house for aid offers. From the Arab world, Kuwait donated $100 million, Yemen said it would send two aid planes, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Red Crescent teams travelled to the region. Sri Lanka pledged $100,000 in assistance. South Africa said it would send 18 doctors, 10 paramedics, and 30 tonnes of aid, while South Korea pledged $3 million and said it would send rescue workers.

The Asian Development Bank said it would offer $10 million, reallocated from existing projects, for immediate assistance. Pakistan's Foreign Office said Russia, the UAE and Spain had sent sniffer dogs, while specialist rescue teams had been sent by Britain, France, China and Turkey. Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Jordan and Saudi Arabia also sent help, while Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing donated $500,000. The World Health Organisation pledged to send medical supplies and disaster relief experts.

At Balakot, relief being distributed from a truck on October 16.-ASIF HASSAN/AFP

MUSHARRAF, while praising the role of the military in rising to the occasion, sought to explain why the Army did not do enough in the initial days of the disaster. "I want you to understand that Pakistan Army personnel were themselves badly hit by the quake. They have suffered over 400 casualties and several hundred from the ranks of the military were injured. Despite their personal tragedy, they went to the rescue of the people. No country in the world is prepared for such a disaster," Musharraf said in an obvious answer to those who criticised the military's inept handling of the situation.

He is inconsolable because he was not allowed to join his relative on board a U.S. helicopter in Muzaffarabad.-MARKUS SCHREIBER/AP

This elaborate explanation put out by Musharraf was not without purpose. No one could be more conscious of the profound consequences of the latest tragedy of the nation than the Pakistani President. The human dimension, relief operations stretching for months, and rehabilitation and reconstruction expected to take up to five years - the situation is mind-boggling.

Musharraf simply has no faith in the mainstream political parties and leaders, and since the October 2002 general elections the political spectrum is deeply fragmented. The military and the ruling party patronised by it are arraigned against the rest of the political forces. It is not just the people but a whole range of forces within and outside Pakistan that are keenly watching the post-quake management. As the cameras move away, the quake is expected to reopen the debate on the efficacy of the military meddling in civic affairs.

Refugees on their way to Muzaffarabad to get supplies and medical help.-BURHAN OZBILICI/AP

Another major area hit by the quake is Pakistan's Kashmir policy, which has been fashioned and dictated by the military. With the whole of the POK falling in the quake zone, in the medium and long term the establishment would be confronted with the delicate task of balancing its interests in a changed world for the people of POK. It was certainly no coincidence that in response to the Indian offer of help Musharraf said it would be evaluated keeping in mind the `sensitivities' involved. Subsequently, it declined to accept India's offer of helicopters and agreed to take only relief materials.

Since 1948, POK, particularly its capital Muzaffarabad, has been flagged as the `base camp of the freedom struggle' in Jammu and Kashmir. The United Jihad Council, the umbrella organisation of militant outfits operating in Kashmir, functions from there. Recently there were reports in the Pakistani media about the revival of militant camps in POK. Indications are that most of the camps have been hit hard by the quake. Could all this have some implications on the India-Pakistan dialogue?

At Batal, 160 km from Islamabad, the remains of a school where 125 students died. Rescue workers recovered bodies of 250 children from two different schools in the place.-ZAHID HUSSEIN/REUTERS

The military is bound to face several questions in the days and weeks to come, particularly on its lack of preparedness in POK, where Pakistan fought three wars with India and invested trillions of rupees to maintain an estimated 100,000 troops along the LoC. Although POK is supposed to be a model of development to expose the poverty on the other side of the LoC, the actual investment in social welfare and infrastructure such as roads and bridges has been minimal.

The international community (read the U.S.) has reasons to be concerned about how Musharraf would fare in the current crisis. Western governments are closely watching the political fall-out for Musharraf, who remains a key Western ally. A part of the explanation for the unprecedented international help lies in the importance of Musharraf to the U.S. and its allies.

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