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Gaps in govt’s relief operation

November 07, 2005

MUZAFFARABAD: There was no let-up here in the rattle of giant helicopters engaged in the massive relief and rescue operation mounted by the military in collaboration with international forces and agencies, yet time was ticking away fast for extricating thousands of stranded people from their hamlets in the devastated mountains of Azad Kashmir and the NWFP.

A large number of shocked people interviewed by this reporter last week in many areas battered by the October 8 earthquake complained they were still without any help from the government and whatever little assistance that could reach them had come from non-governmental sources, including political and religious parties and groups, besides some international donor agencies.

A large number of people were still desperate for tents to save themselves from the cold. The government’s directives to manufacturers not to sell their product to anyone else, perhaps to neutralize the impact of religious and jihadi outfits and other opposition groups, is proving counter-productive.

“This will result in more deaths,” said Abdul Jabbar, who had trekked down to Muzaffarabad after negotiating a dangerous mountain route for two days from his hamlet in Jhelum Valley. “When TV teams and other people could get to difficult areas immediately after the earthquake, why couldn’t the military-men?” he asked.

A large number of people in Bagh, Rawlakot, Muzaffarabad, Balakot, Mansehra and its outskirts were critical of the government’s neglect of victims in the first 24 to more than 72 hours after the quake. There were many areas of the Neelam and Jhelum valleys in AJK and Kohistan in the NWFP where no one had gone to rescue the trapped people.

In view of the immense magnitude of the calamity and the government’s inability to cope with such emergencies, several thousand disabled survivors, mainly children and women, have either migrated to the plains or shifted to other cities.

An ominous stench from unrecovered dead bodies permeated the air in all the affected areas where makeshift relief camps and field hospitals had been put up by national and international relief agencies. Religious parties were in the forefront of relief efforts. The military was trying to streamline the distribution process which in some cases hampered quick disposal of relief. The arrival of American and Nato personnel was a big help for the government in clearing and reconstructing battered roads and evacuating the injured, besides ferrying relief to the affected.

In the Bagh and Rawlakot areas some of the victims said that military teams were nowhere on the scene in the initial aftermath of the quake and on arrival they focussed on salvaging their comrades and their equipment. There were complaints that even in such a grave crisis, when a large part of AJK had been turned into a massive graveyard, some influential people with their hoodlums engaged in looting and abducting injured women and children. However, people said that after about 48 hours the authority switched its focus towards the people.

Students Surraiya and Faiza Abbasi, whose father is working in Saudi Arabia, said those who were engaged in looting and hoarding relief goods were locals, enjoying support of influential people. The family, belonging to the Dheerkot area, was prepared to identify those who committed such crime. Meanwhile the military had started raiding houses and had recovered many looted items.

Those who have sought refuge in tents in open spaces in and around Bagh are also threatened by wild animals in the dense jungle below Neela Bhat. One resident said that when the quake had hit the area, a smoke of black dust had enveloped everyone, making it difficult to breathe.

Most of the affected people complained that the procedure adopted by relief agencies was defective owing to which those who were handicapped were unable to lay their hands on relief items. Many of them complained that the receipts issued by the military-men for ensuring just distribution of relief goods were not entertained for one reason or another.

Although some concern was expressed over the role and presence of religious parties and jihadi outfits in rescue and relief operations, it is pointed out that if they had not scrambled into action, the suffering would have been greater.

In Muzaffarabad, according to retired Professor Ghulam Mustafa, 90 per cent of the buried in the rubble bodies had yet to be recovered. He said the civil and military bureaucracy had vanished from the scene when all hell was let loose on this small bit of paradise on earth.

Locals said that in the Punjgo area, 100 per cent houses had been damaged in Nadwa and Nokri. Same was the case in Panjgirah, Sari and Nodasari. Widespread destruction was also reported from Kalgran, Balgran, Patika, Bud Dara, Kahodi, Batal, Bashash, Rajkot, Amir Kodi, But Mang, Shaheed Gali, Kalar Khet, Baharan, Bandi, Fatehjang, Chatar Malohi, Niazpura, Pir Chanasi and Saidban, Chalpani areas in and around Muzaffarabad.

Along Neelam River, at a relief camp set up by Al Khidmat, a Canadian military unit had set up a water purification unit to provide 5,000 gallons of clean water every hour. Doctors from Singapore, Malaysia, the USA and Pakistan were helping the wounded in a makeshift hospital and food was being provided twice a day.

Once a thriving tourist location, Balakot is now a dead town with many bodies still buried beneath the debris, many schoolchildren among them. The day this reporter was there, volunteers had recovered a decomposed body after more than 15 days. Work to remove the debris could not be started as the government had not completed its survey of damaged property. But to whom would claims be paid? Most of the residents have perished.