Feb 18, 2010

Tahmena shares her experiences of relief work in the Pakistan earthquake with former President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf

It has been almost 4 ½ years since the Oct 5th 2005 earthquake in the northern regions of Pakistan. Recently, we have seen Haiti suffer similar circumstances, that being a poor country under years of civil unrest and political turmoil and then being the epicentre of one of the world’s worst natural disasters.

I want to say that I am so very sorry to hear of the earthquake in Haiti. My heart goes out to all those in Haiti and to Haitians living in Canada who may have family back home. Having worked in earthquake relief directly in Pakistan and teaming up with others to support the May 2008 earthquake relief efforts in China, I can imagine the trauma in the local areas. Being from Pakistan, a country where the emergency response, healthcare and social assistance infrastructure may not be as developed as Canada's, I know that relief efforts can take even a greater toll on the nation as a whole. I understand that the Canadian government has been doing all it can to support Haiti. I encourage everyone around the world to do what you can to help.

We as Pakistanis can share some of the same experiences our Haitian friends are now going through --- when weeks after the quake you still pray that your relatives are still alive somewhere and will be rescued. We can relate to hearing the stories of human triumph that followed; seeing the compassion from your fellow neighbours when no formalized help was possible; and praying that the world is watching and cares, and; indeed for a small moment in history watching the entire world shift all of its media lenses to your tiny nation whom many knew nothing about the day before.

But what lies ahead for Haiti, as the world media attention has now moved on to other crisis and hot topics? Haiti will likely be left with local heroes of NGOs who sometimes have less than those whom they are assisting; likely much social and emotional trauma is still to be addressed and the loss of life yet to be grieved. Those of us who have worked in earthquake relief know this cyle very well, the efforts to first provide food, shelter and then the soft services of dealing with emotional trauma.

Since my last entry on this blog, if one goes to the earthquake hit region in Pakistan now, one will see every house and building with an earthqauke proof tin roof, new schools and healthcare facilities greater than the ones that they replaced and life carrying on as usual. Many local residents would tell you that life is better than pior to the earthquake in terms of facilities. At this point there are hardly any signs that an earthquake even took place, as all the debree has been cleaned up, the dead have been buried and there are no more broken walls and random tents.

It is seldom these days that Pakistan is highlighted in the news for positive reasons and acting in my role as a Pakistani ambassador, I often have to search to find inspiring media stories. Earthquake relief efforts for me are one of those positive aspects that unfortunately we do not hear enough about outside of the Pakistani community or outside of the global disaster relief work community. The Pakistani community, both in and out of Pakistan, was fully united to support the recovery efforts with plane, truck and train loads full of donations, awareness raising, fundraisers around the world, and an overall revived sense of nationhood. Pakistan was highlighted by the UN as an incredible example of relief and recovery and one to be admired and followed by the world.

This was one of the main topics of my discussion with former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in our meeting in his home in London, England. This was my second meeting with him, the first being a brief introduction on airbase grounds during earthquake relief efforts while he was in office. Musharraf was the 10th President of Pakistan and in office from 2001 to 2008, including the 2005 earthquake and 9/11, the world event that put Pakistan permanently on the media’s map. More importantly, I believe that he was one of the strongest leaders the country has seen since being founded in 1947 by Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

His leadership during the earthquake was impressive to many of us locally and abroad. His first decision was to ensure that the army was on the ground and functioning as they had the infrastructure for communication and were prepared for disasters of this enormity. As a foreign Pakistani working on the ground with non-Pakistanis, I can attest to the safety and security that overseas volunteers felt while working there, the comfort felt by the surviviors, and the personal freedom I experienced as a single woman working there. Later on the President made another decision to ban the adopting of Pakistani children by foreigners, which made it impossible for any surviving children to be taken out of the country. I commended this decision given the vulnerability of girl children (and boys for that matter) in a region of the world where children without parents and without documents could very easily be forgotten, fall through the cracks, and be trafficked and abused for various purposes.

Unfortunately, the military leadership of the relief efforts was criticised for corruption where blankets, clothing and food went missing and truckloads of donations were lost according to some donors.

However, as former President Musharraf rightly indicated that you are talking about an impoverished country suffering a major catasrophe for which no one was prepared; telephone lines were jammed; roads were blocked by rubble as well as donor trucks, and; the airports could not sustain the amount of people and aid coming into the country. In such a situation there will be errors, things will go missing, and there is the reality of corruption in the lower levels in countries like Pakistan.

Former President Musharraf correctly indicated that if you go to the areas yourself and if you hear the people discuss the quality of life being better than pre-quake, then you will be witness to where the aid has gone. I agree with his response, as one has to remember we are talking about a country where the majority of people live on less than $2 a day. Like any poor country, there will be corruption within the system because people in general are very desperate to meet the basic requirements of life.

Former President Musharraf was grateful to the international community, not only for the monetary aid but the services, equipment and people who became a part of the relief efforts. I personally felt that this too was one of the most beautiful experiences amidst the destruction, that people who otherwise would never have gone to Pakistan were there, living among the local people, getting a taste of what Pakistanis are all about, and also being the recipients of this extremely kind, gentle, hospitable and generous culture. All of those who supported Pakistan then became pseudo-ambassadors, as they would go back to their family, friends and colleagues to spread the message of how comfortable they felt, how they would never forget Pakistan, how they walked away inspired by the humanity, strength and selflessness of the people, and the many friendships they made with the locals. This was, and still is, a reason to celebrate Pakistan.

It was an absolute honour and privilege to meet with the former President of my country and further to hear his perspectives as the leader of the nation through its most trying times. His charisma was even better in person and I truly could feel his passion and conviction as he sat in the sofa across from me over tea. Mr. Musharraf, thank you again for your continued strong leadership and thank you for your on going faith in the nation and the people.

Written By Tahmena Bokhari