Oct 14, 2007

Two-Year Anniversary Update

October 8th 2005 Pakistan Earthquake
Two-Year Anniversary Update

In this picture: Ms Tahmena Bokhari, Mr Nadeem Shah, Former Prime Minister and Former President of Azad Government of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, Mr. Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan (1991 - 1996), and current Prime Minister of Azad Kashmir Sardar Attique Ahmed Khan (2006 - present). This photograph was taken infront of the Prime Minister House in Islamabad, Pakistan, by the staff of the Prime Minister. It was an honour to meet with the Prime Minister and I was left in admiration of his passion and commitment to the people of Kashmir. Thank you Mr. Prime Minister for your strong leadership in the recovery and re-development of Kashmir.
Pictured below: Jhelum River in Azad Kashmir
I am pleased to say that there has been much progress in the earthquake-hit areas and generally felt among the people. The Government of Pakistan has been actively rebuilding through a temporary branch of the military government called the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA), which is headed by Lieutenant-General Nadeem Ahmad. All construction efforts must be approved by ERRA and meet standards of safety, planning and design set by ERRA. Many local, national and international NGOs and donors have been continuously active and have committed to a long-term plan. I was grateful to have had the opportunity to meet with Lieutenant-General Nadeem Ahmad and to discuss directly with him both hard and soft re-building plans related to education and healthcare development. He was able to explain ERRA's mission, which is to, "Plan, coordinate, monitor and regulate reconstruction & rehabilitation activities in earthquake affected areas, encouraging self reliance via private public partnership and community participation, ensuring financial transparencies." As further discussed below, ERRA's role and operationalizing of the mission has been under criticism by various groups and by the media. 'General Nadeem', as he is commonly known, felt that ERRA staff have been clear on their role and mission and are doing their best to achieve their mission under all circumstances. Above all, I appreciated his courage as a leader and dedication to the ERRA motto of 'building back better', meaning making sure the re-building efforts are enhancing the lives of the impacted communities to a better state than pre-earthquake. Note that unfortunately, due to new sercurity measures cameras were not allowed within the federal government's buildings and no photographs were taken of this meeting.

Most of the international relief agencies completed their "on the ground" support within the first 6-12 months of the earthquake and now mostly local NGOs are continuing the work with local and foreign aid. The Government of Azad Kashmir and specifically the Prime Minister of Azad Kashmir appear positive on the development to date and hopeful for further improvements. Roads, homes, schools, basic health care units (BHUs), and other facilities made with steel-frames and traditional mud-filled wood frames are now being built and utilized. ERRA has committed to ensuring that 6,500 schools, 800 hospitals and health care units, and 4,000 miles of roads are built by their promised 3-yr deadline.

Certainly, this development has not gone with out criticism from various NGOs who felt that their own rebuilding efforts were intertwined with too much 'red tape', bureaucracy and/ or on-going changes to rebuilding requirements that they did not initially financially budget for. Thus, some projects were left half-finished, are taking too long to complete or were abandoned altogether. In addition to the building, programming and associated trained local and national staff are needed to teach in the schools and provide a range of health care services in the BHUs.
Some communities also felt that they did not get their fair or deserving share of financial aid and rebuilding. However, it has been argued by developers that these communities were not as impacted or damaged by the earthquake and it has been debated that enough financial compensation was provided directly to families by the government.

It was reported that 1.7 billion rupees were distributed among the victims in Azad Kashmir and 1.9 billion rupees among the victims in NWFP. However, not everyone received the cash due to, as reported by ERRA, lack of bank
account, national identity card (national i.d. recognized by the government) or some other technical requirement barrier that was crucial in ensuring that the money transferring was a transparent process. Each family was to receive a cheque for 175,000 rupees ($2,800 CAD approx) for reconstruction of their home. However, some residents reported that those who were disbursing the cheques illegally asked them to pay five to ten thousand rupees ($80-160 CAD).

Important to note is that rebuilding appears considerably slower in the three worst hit areas, Muzaffarabad (capital of Azad Kashmir), Balakot (in NWFP), and Bagh (in Azad Kashmir). The master plan for the reconstruction of Bagh, for example, is yet to be unveiled despite us now passing the 2nd anniversary of the disaster.

While I was there, children were coming and going to school, getting ready for Eid and remembering the earthquake and lost loved ones as we came up to the 2-year anniversary on October 8th. Still many are significantly emotionally, mentally and spiritually impacted and traumatized by the devastation of the earthquake. As a social worker, many signs of post-traumatic stress disorder were evident in my interactions and long conversations with men, women and children. Many residents reported having nightmares. Some mentioned that although over time it has become easier, they still find it very difficult to live in peace with a sense of security. Many mentioned that its difficult to talk about the impact of the earthquake on their families with their families. Some mentioned that some of their family members are just not the same, are not the same person anymore or that they just can't talk to them anymore. I feel it is important that we continue to work with people, families and communities on these issues. These "soft" services are still in high demand in these areas and less focus has been placed on these issues so far.

In my overall September-October 2007 experience, people appeared much calmer as compared to when I was there in 2005 and 2006. Being that we were in the middle of the month of Ramadan may have also been a factor in the calmer feeling I myself felt as I interacted with villagers. The people who remain residents of the earthquake-hit areas that I personally visited and worked in gave me the impression that they are at peace with the reconstruction. Some felt that their communities are better now than before the quake.

Although many women had died in the earthquake disproportionately in Azad Kashmir, I saw in the villages that women were preparing food, feeding children and continuing with care-taking of their newly built homes and communities. As I walked through the 'cleaned-up' villages with children running around, I took in the breath-taking views of Neelum and Jhelum rivers and valleys with sights of women washing clothes. As I drove up the steep Kaghan/Kanhar mountains I saw women walking up and down carrying babies, containers and baskets. It was interesting to me that before, during and, after the disaster that the roles women played in the safety, livelihood and daily life of their communities were maintained.

I will share with you a relevant quote from bell hooks' talk in Toronto of 2003 that I have found truth in over and over again in all of my work in various parts of the world: "When a black woman from the inner parts of an American city who lost both her sons to gun violence questioned me on what I could possibly tell her that will hold her up and give her the will to live on; I responded by saying that no one could have such words but, there should be a community around you that will hold you up when you are not able!"

Each and every time I return to these areas, having seen the disaster, the instant reaction from the communities and the healing efforts by the local people with my own eyes, I am significantly reminded of the strength of the collective human spirit and the power of communities to heal us as individuals.