Oct 7, 2006

1-Year Anniverary Reflections

October 8th 2005 Pakistan Earthquake
1st Year Anniversary Reflections

As I traveled over the borders of what used to be one nation, I reflected on the diversity of peoples and the powerful individuals I had the opportunity to work with. The following two quotes came to mind:
"You must be the change you want to see in this world."
- Mohandas Gandhi (1869- 1948), India's "father of the nation".
"There are two powers in the world: one is the sword and the other is the pen. There is a great competition and rivalry between the two. There is a third power stronger than both, that of the women."
- Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948), Founder of Pakistan, from Speech at Islamia College for Women, March 25th 1940.

My telling of this international news focuses on the hope and humanity of the people living in this area and the role that "community" had played in the recovery and healing. "The community" played this role in the disaster because it played a strong role in routine daily life and in the hearts and minds of individuals in the life that they always knew.

Given that this natural disaster did not last more than a few days on mainstream news in the West, donors were apparently fatigued from the Tsunami and Katrina (not to mention funding for the war), this was happening in a part of the world that was highly thought of as the necessary site for the "war on terror", and because the mainstream media coverage of the earthquake did not seem to provide a holistic picture, appropriate reflections of the communities, or any answers to handling "disaster", I felt it was necessary to re-tell the story of the earthquake from my experience and this website is a part of that re-telling. One year later, in memory of the lives lost and in honour of the communities I worked in, I am still telling the same story.

The following are some quick reported-measurements of the Pakistan earthquake. The earthquake hit on Oct 8th 2005 with magnitude of 7.6 at the epicentre of Muzaffarabad (the capital city of Azad Kashmir in Pakistan). It was estimated that 150,000 people died, 19,000 being children in schools and, over 3 million survivors were instantly left homeless. Many of the survivors became permanently disabled or badly injured and a large majority of all families lost their ability to support themselves through their own farm land and/ or lost their businesses. It was estimated that 250,000 farm animals died in their collapsed stone barns and more than 500,000 large animals immediately required medical care, food and shelter from harsh winter. There were about 140 aftershocks over a period of two months that impacted cities as far south as Lahore.

Both North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Azad Kashmir are in a mountainous region in which transport is difficult and dangerous even under normal circumstances, where it gets extremely cold in winters with snowfall, and where there is a diversity of mountain and valley communities, dialects, peoples and traditions. Azad Kashmir is a disputed territory with India and is politically segregated from the rest of Pakistan with its own Prime Minister and government. This is all in a country ranked 134 on the UN's Human Development Index Chart, with a population of 156 million people and with an estimated 74% of its population living on less than $2 USD per day.

Due to the earthquake, 3 million displaced people went into tents and some left for other cities across Pakistan to become beggers or in hopes to find extremely poor-paying informal street or house keeping work. Note also that due to the "war on terror" in neighboring Afghanistan (on west border of two Pakistani provinces NWFP and Balochistan), Pakistan has been taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees who are now living in camps across three provinces (NWFP, Balochistan and Punjab). These refugees have also been searching for poorly-paid informal work or begging and are in need of support from various NGOs.

Here, in the earthquake hit areas, there was no prior formal infrastructure for such disasters, such as 9-1-1 phone call, ambulances, firefighters, equipment to remove rubble, or any prior safety planning. However, somehow, the survivors and local people knew what to do and their communal safety-net was fully functioning. Men and women were helping each other in their areas, there were assembly lines of men removing rubble and large debree with their bare hands, children were being carried and helped by any adult that was around, people were helping each other find their family members, injured women were being removed from under collapsed homes by several community members at a time, people were holding each other, people were praying together and, during meal times families were sharing whatever they had and eating together as survivor communities.

In addition to the response by the local people, within 48hrs several Pakistani NGOs from around the country were present setting up tents for survivors, providing free medical care, and arranging for further support. The national government, government of Azad Kashmir and national NGOs quickly arranged and coordinated international support. One urgent necessity donated by foreign countries within a few days was of helicopters to fly many patients and people out of communities that were now unstable, barricaded by landslides and massive rubble, destroyed roads, and at risk of further damage by aftershocks. Certainly, there were also many issues of coordinating relief efforts (such as transporting extra blankets from one area to areas of shortage by helicopter and flying during daylight hours only), communication challenges among relief organizations, women and children were now more vulnerable to physical harm, and later debates on questions of if, and how, the Government of Pakistan could have responded quicker or more effectively.

Support from the Pakistani diaspora around the globe poured in, almost immediately, to the President's Relief Fund, which was quickly set-up by the government and broadcasted. Nationals and overseas Pakistani communities responded quickly with urgent necessities such as food, tents, warm clothes and blankets lasting over several months. Pakistan International Airline (PIA), the only national and state-owned airline, agreed to bring donated goods into the country free of charge from around the world. Pakistanis living abroad were uniting and raising funds and goods through their networks, in their mosques and community centres, donating directly online to the President's Relief Fund and to national charities (such as Ansar Burney Welfare Trust or the Edhi Foundation) and, giving in the form of zakat, (meaning "charity/donations" being that it was the month of Ramadan & zakat is one of the 5 pillars of Islam). As a Pakistani living in the west, and as many overseas Pakistanis have expressed, I experienced a rare instance of what felt like complete global unity, wherein every person who even remotely identified as Pakistani felt to do something for the people directly impacted by this natural disaster. Of course it cannot go without mention the immediate support from various individuals and communities and certainly international organizations dedicated to global disaster relief and refugee support, such as the United Nation's High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) (tents seen in picture).

All of the above was despite the little attention on the earthquake in western mainstream media compared to the attention on the Tsunami. It is interesting to contrast this local and "third world" national response to the earthquake to that of another natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina, which took place in a first world country (in fact the world superpower) just a few months prior. Why was there such a stark contrast in the response to these two natural disasters? What role (if any) did "community" play in both Hurricane Katrina and the Pakistan Earthquake? Why was there a large difference in western mainstream media coverage time and representation of the Thailand/South-East Asia Tsunami compared to that of the Pakistan/South Asia earthquake? Please feel free to continue to comment and discuss these issues on this site (see link at bottom of this update).

I want to thank you for taking the time to read about the earthquake on this site. Over time, this site has evolved from what was only to be a simple story of my direct work in the camps into a space for critical and creative thinking. This is partly due to many of you who attended my workshops and raised important questions for dialogue.