10.10.05

Incredible Sadness: Earthquake in Pakistan

I know I've been absent from the blogosphere longer than I anticipated/promised. The dissertation chapters are taking l-o-n-g-e-r than I anticipated...more on the going-ons in my Ph.D. life some other time. All of that pales in comparison to what happened this week-end.

Ever since Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc (that's putting it mildly!) in New Orleans it seems that the world has been hit by one disaster after another. The latest is the earthquake that hit Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan. Pakistan, where I was born and raised, is badly hit. It has been termed Pakistan's largest national tragedy. The latest estimates of the death toll exceed 30,000 and are expected to reach the 40,000 mark with tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands injured.

My first reaction - along with that of my parents - was to ensure that our family and friends in both Pakistan and India were okay. They were - most of the individuals we know in Pakistan live in the south (the earthquake hit north) and those whom we know in India live primarily in and around Mumbai or Delhi or Hyderabad. While the aftershocks have been felt in some of the areas these cities escaped the wrath of the earthquake. However, we were particularly concerned about individuals we know who live in Islamabad as well as Azad (Independent) Kashmir and adjacent areas like Rawalakot, Abbottabad, etc. As news reports poured in with footage coming in from areas beyond Islamabad the devastation was both overwhelming and heart-breaking. However, the focus remained on aerial shots of towns and villages.

Through Saturday, I'd presumed that everyone I/we knew was well. However, come Sunday more names started coming to mind of acquaintances, colleagues, and the like whom we aren't in touch with regularly but have been a part of our lives, no matter how small, at one time or another. As we tried to gain more information we discovered that a peon in my grandmother's office who as far as I can remember has worked there for longer than I've been alive has lost his entire family. Some folks we know who live in Karachi have families in Muzaffarabad which is one of the worst-hit towns in Azad Kashmir. Either individuals are missing or dead. Some folks we know have already left or are leaving shortly to try and find their families.

News footage that came in Sunday morning suddenly became more human as aerial views gave way to faces of individuals, badly injured children, dead bodies, and relatives in mourning. The helplessness being felt by folks at home is so apparent. There are stories and images that stick out in my mind. I can't help thinking about those parents who saw their children die in front of them; parents who could only save one or two of their children; the girls and boys in schools who probably had gone inside their classrooms minutes ago; the child who lost his/her entire family and is lying in a wheelchair trembling; the injured child being taken to a helicopter to be transported to a hospital for medical attention only to be turned back at the door because there is just no more space inside the helicopter; the tens of thousands of people who have no home, no life, no family to go back to and who can't even begin to imagine how to pick up the pieces of a life that was already frail because of poverty, separation (many Kashmiri families have been split following the rift between India and Pakistan and have gone through losing loved ones in fights between militants in the Kashmiri region), and an ongoing dispute between two rival nations.

What do I make of this? I don't know. Images of people struggling for survival in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are definitely fresh in all of our minds. And now this. The absence of rescue and relief efforts seemed conspicuous in Pakistan yet I wouldn't like to criticize the government - what can one really say when a country just doesn't have the resources to even conduct rescue missions? For a moment though I'm forced to think of the disparity between urban and rural areas in Pakistan. It's sad to think that in a country where lavish weddings in which 3500 people are invited there aren't resources to even reach so many towns and villages where dead bodies and injured survivors lie under the rubble. It was depressing to hear the President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, admit that Pakistan just doesn't have enough helicopters to be able to conduct a more efficient relief effort. Critics might add that we've devoted all our resources to defense and nuclear weapons; that might very well be true but I can't help but say that things are much more complicated than an individual can begin to fathom. It's easy to lay blame and criticize but that isn't what is needed at this hour.

To me, watching the victims of Hurricane Katrina on the news was saddening. Despite living in a country with resources, these people just couldn't get help soon enough. Watching the victims of the earthquake in South Asia, particularly Pakistan, was saddening in a different way - with roads having become inaccessible and aftershocks continuing (one of the fears I hear is that River Jhelum in Pakistan has changed course due to landslides caused by the earthquake and there is now a danger of flooding in Punjab...although I'm not sure whether this is true or a rumor) Pakistan doesn't have the equipment to reach those areas which were in or near the epicenter of the earthquake. With this reality in mind, I can't help but think about those folks who live in the towns and villages where help is on the way but it just might be too late. It's even more overwhelming when one learns that these people don't even have enough supplies to bury the dead nor enough equipment to transport those that have been lying injured in the outdoors since Saturday night! It continues to break my heart to know that millions of victims of this earthquake have no shelters to go to and have been outdoors for 3 nights now in the cold and, in some areas, torrential rains. Unlike other natural disasters where footage of people eating food can be seen no such video has emerged out of Pakistan as yet - all I see is a sea of faces in shock and mourning. I wish I could do more than send relief supplies (including medicines) and monetary contributions but I'm sadly lacking in skills that would be required for a relief/rescue effort at this stage. Perhaps when I'm in Pakistan next month there might be something I can do.

That the earthquake hit a region already devastated by an ongoing dispute makes one wonder how the people in both Pakistani/Azad Kashmir and Indian Kashmir are even coming to terms with what's happening to them. I'll admit that I haven't been able to focus on how badly or otherwise Afghanistan has been hit but the same sentiment/thought comes to mind - once again a region torn by war is facing another challenge. It definitely seems unfair....some folks I know have gone down the religious route i.e. God paying these individuals back for their sins....that's a bitter pill to swallow because I'd like to think of God as Merciful, not pissed off.

In the midst of all this sadness, it's encouraging to see so much help pouring in from those within or from Pakistan as well as all over the world. As a Pakistani-American, I'm particularly touched by the support extended to Pakistan by the US government and my fellow-citizens in the US. I'm also touched by the support and help offered by India...perhaps Pakistan can't afford to reciprocate the offer given its magnanimous losses and lack of resources but I hope the military and other individuals from the Pakistani side will extend the help needed in those parts of Indian-Kashmir where the death toll also continues to mount. This might sound silly but I really would like to thank all nations, institutions, and individuals without whose generosity and spirit this difficult time would most likely seem impossible for those in my first home as it were - I know "the world" isn't reading this blog but I'd just like to put that out there. I also want to thank friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who called and/or e-mailed to inquire about the well-being of folks I know in Pakistan and India. I hope the victims of the quake in South Asia know that the support and prayers of billions of people in this world are with them and that they can find strength and patience in this fact.

Sad times for sure but even though it's cliche I'll continue believing in the saying that it's often darkest before dawn. Perhaps tomorrow will bring with it news about the chauffer who drove me around in Islamabad (and some outlying towns) when I was there for field research this past winter...I remember that he was from Muzaffarabad. He worked in Islamabad but his family was still there. Perhaps I'll hear good news about another lady I spoke with about her experience migrating from India to Pakistan who lives near Rawalakot for most of the year - right now I have no way of finding out how she is since I've been unsuccessful in reaching her at her home phone number. Perhaps the peon and driver/chauffer in my grandmother's office will report back with good news about their family. Perhaps in the coming weeks homes will be rebuilt and the people there will not be afraid to go back inside them. Perhaps the news footage will soon show peoples' despair give way to smiles and happiness as reconstruction begins.

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