The earthquake that was like a nuclear bomb
By Khalid Hasan
WASHINGTON: A detailed eye-witness account of the devastation caused by the October 8 earthquake, published here this week, offers the view that what many perceive in Pakistan as the Army’s “sluggish” reaction to the disaster may be explained, in part, by its own heavy losses in the area where the temblor hit.
Steve Coll writes in the current issue of New Yorker, quoting an army spokesman, that 450 officers and soldiers died on the first day, and 711 were injured. “To judge by the damage I saw in Army camps in Kashmir, the actual toll may be higher; scores of Army wives and children also perished as cantonments and schools collapsed,” he adds. Describing it as a “catastrophe without precedent” in the country’s history, he notes that President Pervez Musharraf faced “sharp questions” from civilian politicians, Islamic leaders, and reporters about why the government, and the Army, had not organised relief more quickly. He compared it to what US President George Bush faced in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He ascribes the impression that the Army was slow to move to graphic footage of the damage shown by Pakistan’s offshore independent channels.
Coll writes that although President Musharraf has expanded the military’s influence in national life, yet, when the earthquake hit, the Army appeared “neither efficient nor consumed by any sense of urgency.” The signing of the billion dollar agreement for the purchase of Swedish aircraft was ill timed and triggered criticism of the regime. He adds, “The Friday Times, one of Pakistan’s leading newspapers, suggested in a front-page editorial that Musharraf’s insistence on heavy defence spending might explain the slow pace of donations to the UN for earthquake relief: ‘If you were a Westerner asked to provide humanitarian financial assistance to a country led by a military government obsessed with the regional ‘military balance,’ what would you think?’”
According to Coll who has been the Washington Post correspondent in this region, adding to President Musharraf’s difficulties was the fact that many of the hardest-hit villages were in Kashmir, “whose land and people are at the centre of Pakistan’s most emotional national cause—the 58-year conflict with India over its political destiny.” The writer describes a camp set up in an affected area of Azad Kashmir by an Army brigade, where one Maj. Fayyaz Ahmed explained to him from a map of Kashmir why the relief campaign was proving so daunting. There were enormous geographical problems, he said. About 80,000 farmers and herders and their families lived in scattered villages on ridges overlooking the Jhelum River in one district alone, and they were reluctant to leave their land. Rock slides had blocked many of the dirt tracks that connected them to the valley. There were military constraints. Pakistani and Indian forces were deployed in large numbers along the Line of Control. “The Pakistan Army is trained for any job that we are assigned - floods, elections, epidemics,” Major Ahmed told him. But, referring to the earthquake and its aftermath, he said, “It is the magnitude of a nuclear bomb.”
Coll writes that the only way to reach many of the most vulnerable survivors was to walk. He joined an Army mule column at Hattian Dupatta, along the Jhelum River, of 29 soldiers and “two intrepid dogs.” He says the Army had dispatched several fresh brigades into the mountains, and they fanned out into villages on the highest ridges. Mules that were normally used to haul ammunition to the Pakistani bunkers closest to the Line of Control were requisitioned for relief work. Each of the animals was loaded down with more than two hundred pounds of blankets, cardboard boxes bulging with clothes, and burlap sacks of grain. A dozen of the soldiers in the unit carried 40-lb canvas packs to supplement the mules. The party handed out food and blankets along the way and came upon the village of Bundi that had been flattened to the ground. There were over a hundred survivors to whom the officers handed out slips entitling each family to a tent, to be picked up at a base camp in the valley.
Coll was also flown over the Neelum Valley in an Army chopper. The pilot, Maj Qasim Abbas, zigzagged north through steep canyons. “In many places, the sides of mountains had fallen down, as if they had been sliced off with a giant axe. Boulders lay on the narrow dirt roads below us, and hundreds of people walked in uneven lines along the slopes, with bundles of donated food or clothing on their shoulders, collected from the valley’s helicopter-supplied relief depots.” Coll also went to Muzaffarabad that he describes as “a strange blend of commercial flair, kitschy decorations, and a culture of Islamic martyrdom.” He met AJK prime minister Sardar Sikander Hayat Khan, who told him, “What we achieved in 40 years, that was gone in 40 seconds.” He told the correspondent that the earthquake would bring Pakistan and Azad Kashmir even closer, explaining that aid pouring in from Islamabad would remind Kashmiri Muslims where their future lay.
Coll found in Muzaffarabad the main Jamaatud Dawa camp on the west bank of the Neelum River, in a part of the city that had been severely damaged. He writes that unlike the Army, the group had mobilised quickly after the quake because of a seminary it ran with 200 students who got to work. The Jamaatud Dawa had about 3,000 volunteers throughout the area struck by the earthquake, the US correspondent was told. The group also ran a hospital where surgeons from Karachi and Lahore had assembled an operating theatre with an oxygen machine and medical monitoring equipment. The Dawa spokesman by the name of Khalid was asked if it bothered him that the American government had branded his group, or its predecessor, a terrorist organisation, he replied, “If you accuse someone, that doesn’t mean it’s true. I would invite the American doctors and medical staff to come and join us. Our doors are open.... Any American kid or boy can come work with us. They are most welcome.” The jihadi group had also established a ferry service using motorised rubber rafts trucked in from its headquarters, in Lahore.
Coll writes, “The Jamaatud Dawa volunteers I met offered only mild criticism of Musharraf and the Army, merely wondering why it had been so slow to organise. They said that they had been cooperating extensively with Pakistani troops in the relief work. Later, I asked an Army spokesman, Major Farooq Pirzada, if this was true, and he replied that all charity groups, foreign and Pakistani, were welcome in the earthquake zone. The Army coordinated with them to avoid duplication. “We’re helping everyone,” the Major said. “We’re not stopping anyone.”
According to the New Yorker report, the earthquake-relief effort in Muzaffarabad has highlighted President Musharraf’s dilemma, and has “drawn together the two sides of his ungainly balancing act: his cooperation with the United States in fighting terrorism and his attempt to appease, or at least manage, Pakistani groups that the United States has identified as terrorists.”
Coll noticed that less than a mile from the main Jamaatud Dawa camp in the Azad Kashmir capital, the US Army had erected a field hospital. American Humvees were sharing Muzaffarabad’s streets with ambulances from the Al Rashid Trust, a Pakistani charity whose funds were blocked by the Bush Administration in 2001 because of accusations that it aided Al Qaeda. “Musharraf’s political position has been perilous ever since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, when he supported the United States.... The success of jihadi groups in providing earthquake relief have only strengthened their claims to legitimacy in Pakistan.... Two months earlier, the region was a closed security zone, to which foreigners typically could not travel without an escort and a special permit. Now small crowds of local men gathered to watch with apparent admiration as female European soldiers shopped in their food stalls. Pakistan has unsuccessfully sought to turn the conflict into an international matter, with the United States and European powers directly involved, and helping to push for a settlement; at least temporarily, the outside world, thanks to the earthquake, has finally come to Kashmir.”