Sauve qui peut

29 Aug 2019


The writer is an author.
The writer is an author.

“WAR is starting soon. Be prepared.” The remark would have been innocuous in itself, had it not been made by a man in uniform to his relative, a civilian. The latter replied: “And how exactly do I prepare myself?” It made one reconsider our preparedness (or lack of it) at a non-military level in the event of war.

Traditionally, defence has been subcontracted to our armed forces. Half our annual budget goes to ensure that we civilians can sleep securely at night. Where do we as a nation stand, though, in the grey area of civil defence?

Even though we seem to have been in a continuous state of insecurity since birth, our experience of actual war does not match the traumas countries such as Russia, China, even Vietnam, underwent.

Consider Russia. Invasion by Germany during the 1939-45 war reminded the Russians, first, never to trust their neighbours and, secondly, to be prepared in the event of an overland attack. In 1812, Napoleon invaded and reached Moscow. Two hundred years later, the Russians still feel insecure, enough to make provision for mass evacuation of its cities.

Where do we stand in the grey area of civil defence?

Today, if the alarm sounds, most Muscovites will take refuge in the cavernous metro stations and train tunnels, and any basements (if they have them). Anyone who has visited these metro stations with their spectacular mosaics and chandeliers will realise that they are more than subterranean Stalinist follies. They are reinforced fortifications built to protect Muscovites from the aftermath of a nuclear attack.

Other Russian cities have made parallel arrangements for the safety of their citizens. When their deep shelters are not in use by the military, they double as parking lots or for commercial purposes. Many of these bunkers are built to the state’s standard specifications — an ability to withstand an air-blast ‘of up to 100 kilopascal’; air filtration lighting systems operated by dedicated power generation units; and accommodation for thousands of people at a time.

Could it be a coincidence that Russia began conducting large-scale civil defence drills in 2016, when Donald Trump was in the home stretch in his bid for the US presidency? Its last national drill involved 40 million people — more than the populations of Karachi, Lahore and Faisalabad combined.

Russia’s neighbour China has a similar, residual paranoia of foreign invasions. For this reason, it too takes the safety of its population very seriously. Each Chinese city has constructed underground shelters. The Chinese have made no secret of their plans. A CCTV report disclosed that “since 1995, the Second Artillery Division has mobilised tens of thousands of soldiers to build a network of tunnels stretching for more than 5,000 kilometres below the mountain regions of Hebei”.

A 21st-century Great Wall has been built, below ground: “Most of the ‘underground great wall’ is catered towards nuclear second strike capability and storage of supplies, and each system is connected in a greater countrywide network via tunnels and civilian infrastructure. Underground infrastructure provides security for rocket force, army, navy and air force assets.”

The North Vietnamese used a system of subterranean tunnels which enabled the Vietcong to shelter from US bombings and also to move men and material undetected along a warren that stretched from Saigon to the border of Cambodia. Today, the most famous of them — the tunnels of Cu Chi — have been converted into a tourist attraction, where the inquisitive can fire an AK-47 gun and even taste the sort of meal North Vietnamese soldiers had to eat holed up underground.

The residents of Karachi, Lahore and Faisalabad should envy the conscientiousness with which the Russians and the Chinese have planned for the survival of their populations after an enemy’s first strike, and, equally importantly, the ability to retaliate with a powerful second strike.

What arrangements have we as a nation made to safeguard our population in the event of a nuclear or even a conventional weapons attack? Where can people hide? In shallow underpasses? In chandeliered marriage halls? Which hospitals could civilians expect to run to for treatment in a conflagration, and are these hospitals equipped to handle thousands of casualties simultaneously? And what would, say, affluent Lahori civilians (who live 22km from the Wagah border) do if an enemy platoon parachuted into the posher localities like Gulberg or DHA? How would residents protect their families and defend their mansions? And with what?

In such situations, the French would shrug and advise: Sauve qui peut. Translated, it means ‘save yourself, if you can’, or worse still, ‘each man for himself’. Such singularity may ensure individual survival. It makes for poor collective civil defence.

The precautions taken by other countries teach us that effective civil defence is not an expectation but a reality on the ground. Or below it.

The writer is an author.

Published in Dawn, August 29th, 2019