EDITORIAL: Earthquake: ‘images’ and reality
TV images have brought the tragedy of the earthquake alive. The cameras have gone to areas where no one had yet gone for rescue and relief. This coverage alerted the government to the needs of the people in the stricken areas where the state “could not” have gone at all. Vital information was thus provided about the state of the people whose dear ones had either died or were dying because rescue teams were not available. Also, after the third day, the efforts made by the government and civil society organisations were reported upon to break the earlier impression of total dereliction.
There was also the downside to this cascading imagery of disaster. Pain was shown in the raw without any human mediation. There was no balancing factor in the exposure of the suffering of women and children, with the result that they could not be “seen” any more. Anger too was shown in the raw. The man commenting on the images on the spot wanted to squeeze out as much shocking footage as he could. Women and elders, delicately poised between life and death, cursed the government and the state for failing to come to their help even on the third day of the cataclysm.
Gradually, however, the TV channels woke up to the actual difficulties of logistics. The villages and cities that suffered were completely cut off. Also, the state agencies that hurled themselves into the rescue effort had no clue as to what was required of them. In Bagh, when the first batch of troops arrived, they were all wearing watches and had forgotten to bring sledge hammers with them. Like other inhabitants, they too gingerly picked small stones from the collapsed concrete. Helicopters were seen by the luckless victims in the sky again and again but none would land to give them the food they needed. The fury at being neglected was palpable.
In some cases the footage of pain and suffering was repeated needlessly. In one case, the announcer reported the arrival of rescue and relief teams and showed rescuers working on the ground just one minute after showing images that conveyed the opposite message. Somewhere someone had forgotten to judge the rapid obsolescence of the images. That is why it was necessary to date this coverage as the post-disaster reality began to change. But it seemed as if some elements of the media were reluctant to let go of the opportunity for shocking sensitivities that had come after a long time.
These images have affected the nation. There are now two realities. While there is a great sense of solidarity among the people everywhere collecting relief goods for the victims, the state’s reputation has suffered. The images have convinced the people that the government fell down on the job after first assuming there was ample opportunity for it to show its efficiency. That no one could reach Bagh and Shangla — not even the NGOs –till the fourth day was forgotten. Politicians who had earlier promised to work with the government now sensed the mood and announced that their operations would be “separate” from those by the government. This is saying goodbye to coordination.
The PMLN leader-in-exile, Nawaz Sharif, first spoke of burying the hatchet, then asserted the following day that his party’s efforts would be made separately. Already, we had the spectacle of many political and social organisations going it alone to show evidence of work to their donors, at the cost of coordination that is so important during such colossal destruction. We remember that during the great Tsunami earlier this year some NGOs in Sri Lanka ended up supplying 60 kettles to the same family! In Indonesia, Jamia Islamia, which is a terrorist organisation, separated rescue and relief on the basis of religion! Then we heard of the NWFP chief minister, Akram Durrani, arriving in Islamabad looking for federal funds for relief but getting nothing because he was still unwilling to attend the just-announced National Security Council (NSC) session.
The MMA leader, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, has reiterated his view that attending an “unconstitutional” NSC would be against the MMA consensus. But the truth is that most MMA parties are in favour of Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Mr Durrani attending. Therefore the Jamaat i Islami has announced a “separate” drive to collect funds and will surely strike out on its own when it comes to deploying them. Other parties too are announcing their separate collections and it is doubtful that they will coordinate with the government for fear of associating with a government that has hounded many of them in the past and which is tarred by TV images for doing too little too late. .
Meanwhile, the government itself is not sure if it can accept India’s help for fear of losing its image further. This is certainly a defensive reaction to what its opponents are getting to ready to do. There is bureaucratic nitpicking in the decision not to let Indian rescue personnel enter our areas of disaster, especially Azad Kashmir, which is disputed with India! It is again the imagery that the government dreads. Imagine an Indian soldier, who has been killing Kashmiri Muslims, pulling our women and children out of collapsed homes! But such thinking cannot be achieved without forgetting the fact that every time the British rescuers pulled victims out of the Margalla Towers wreck, the people standing around clapped and raised the cry of “Allah Akbar”!
The biggest irony to follow our reluctance to accept the Indian offer came in the shape of the statement of the leader of Kashmir’s victims. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the chairperson of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), made a tearful appeal to India and Pakistan “not to let politics interfere with helping earthquake victims in the disputed region, and urged them to launch joint relief efforts”. He added, “This tragedy has not respected the ceasefire line. We have seen that both India and Pakistan have been hesitant in accepting each other’s relief. Let’s not play politics over this”.
Alas, in the end, politics always succeeds in prevailing over humanity. *