Asian earthquake disaster: Three weeks after the earthquake…time runs out for survivors

As winter looms thousands more could die

The situation is bleak for the survivors of the Asia earthquake, which destroyed six districts in Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP Pakistan) and four main districts in Kashmir (Pakistani Occupied Kashmir) on 8 October.

More than 300,000 people are still waiting for aid and relief. According to military officials in Allai Valley, in Batgram (NWFP) district, “The lives of 50,000 people are still in danger and they need immediate evacuation.”

The situation is no different in Neelam and Jehlam Valleys, in Pakistani Occupied Kashmir. According to UNICEF, ten thousand children may die due to the lack of facilities and shelter during the coming winter on the mountains.

Yet the Pakistan regime of General Musharraf continues to make false claims about relief and rehabilitation work. The regime does not explain that two hundred thousand families still are living without the tents and proper shelter. Their desperate situation will get even worse. In the next couple of weeks, the snow will start to fall on the mountains.

Chaos and panic continues to characterise the government’s relief work. There is much talk by government officials but much less work on the ground. UNHCR officials recently said, “We fear that 30,000 more people will die [and] another 20000 will become permanently disabled because of extreme cold weather, diseases and inadequate health facilities”.

The death toll, according to official figures given by Pakistan’s Federal Relief Commissioner (a general in uniform), has already reached 73,000. But unofficial figures indicate the death toll will go over 150,000. There are still many areas where no aid has reached.

Militarisation of aid and reconstruction

The militarisation of aid and reconstruction is expanding. The Federal government, dominated by the generals, has issued a notification to tent manufacturers and importers that states that the companies must only sell tents to the military and not to NGOs and other organisations. All the foreign aid is also kept and distributed by the military. The generals and military officers most likely dominate the reconstruction and rehabilitation work, which means less accountability and no participation of the local communities and working class people in the reconstruction.

The Musharraf regime continues to give the false impression that the military is the only institution in Pakistani which can be trusted completely. The experience of the last 6 years, during which the all powerful generals have dominated society, shows that military intervention and domination is no solution to the problems faced by the working class. On the contrary, military rule aggravates the problems and sufferings of the working masses, as shown by the earthquake aftermath.

According to a renowned political analyst and ex-army officer, the “Military generals do not seem concerned about relief work but are more concerned about their fast fading image. They are involved in a useless face-saving exercise which is further damaging their image and repute. I never saw so many people so angry with the army in my whole life. As an ex-army officer, I find this heartbreaking. The generals should not blame the media or individuals for damaging the image of the army, but instead they should review their relief effort and heavy involvement in the political and economic affairs of the country. I went to different affected areas of Kashmir and Hazara and heard lots of complaints by ordinary people about the army relief operation”.

The military wants to control all the relief and reconstruction activities. There is no involvement by any civilian, public sector department, or institution, in relief and reconstruction.

This makes it clear that the generals will not voluntarily withdraw from politics. The history of Pakistani politics clearly shows that military generals never withdraw from politics on the request of so-called democratic leaders. Only the working class will fight to the end for genuine democratic rights. This was shown when, for few years, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the Pakistan military were thrown out of government and political life by mass working class action.

The arrival and involvement of US and NATO troops in Pakistan has furthered the militarisation of relief and rehabilitation work. Yet the overwhelming majority of the Pakistani population is against the presence of these forces. The US and European powers want to use their troop deployment in Pakistan to try to improve the image of the imperialists powers. They are not involved in any real relief activity on the ground. Some in the media comment that the main purpose of the US and NATO troops are not to take part in the relief and rehabilitation work but to hunt for Osama-Bin-Ladan and other Al-Qaeda leaders.

The Musharraf regime is under fire from all the sections of society, including the main opposition parties, on the issue of foreign imperialist troops. It will be very difficult for the regime to keep these forces in Pakistan for a longer period.

The troops presence must also be seen in the context of the present developments between India and Pakistan regarding Kashmir. It seems that both governments want to use the earthquake ‘opportunity’ to make further advances on the Kashmir issue. But the recent devastating explosions in Dehli, the Indian capital, appears to be a clear warning from the extreme, right wing, nationalist wing of the Pakistani ruling class, which is not in favour of any concessions or compromise on Kashmir.

Time runs out

Despite several warnings made by UNHCR and UNICEF officials that relief activities need to be speeded up to save the lives of thousands of people, nothing has been done so for to do this. No plan was made in the light of these warnings to provide shelter, food and health facilities in the remote areas of Kashmir and Hazara region. Now a very serious crisis has emerged, in which thousands more are going to lose their lives due to the negligence of the Pakistani rulers. The UNHCR warned the government, about two weeks ago, that battle against time might be lost because of the slow pace of relief work. One UN official said that even money will not be able to bring back the precious time have already lost and if more time is lost more lives will also be lost.

All these warnings have become reality. Thirty four children died in last two days because of lack of shelter and resources against extreme cold. Around 11,000 people have already lost limbs due to the delay in getting medical treatment. There are more than 80,000 people injured, only a few thousand have been able to get proper medical treatment, and the rest are still waiting to get medical treatment. Most of them will die if they fail to get proper medical treatment. No senior surgeons or specialist doctors are available in the affected areas.

More than 50,000 students (both boys and girls) are confirmed dead. All these students died in school buildings which collapsed immediately when the earthquake hit. It is criminal negligence on the part of the ruling class, which pays no attention to properly maintaining these school and college buildings. No funds were allocated for the maintenance of schools and college buildings. Assessments of damages are still going on but early reports suggesting that at least 4,000 schools were destroyed by the earthquake in Kashmir and Hazara Region.

The government has not started to pay compensation to the affected families to build new homes. The poor have nothing left to build their houses with. Even constructing mud houses is impossible without compensation from the government. There is no chance that these people will be able to get this compensation soon, because the Pakistani army is still conducting surveys of affected families. They will start to pay the compensations after the completion of these surveys.

So, people living on the mountains are left with only two options. One option is to stay on the mountains to face all hardships and extreme cold weather and to wait for the government to help them. The other option is to leave their areas to move to the big cities or tent cities near the big cities.

The people who can pay high rents can afford to rent a house in cities like Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Thousands of people have migrated from different areas to Rawalpindi/Islamabad and to other cities for the winter. Because of this migration, house rents have gone up by almost 200 to 300 %. A two room house costs 5,000 to 6000 rupees (50 to 60 pound) per month. It is not possible for a working class family to afford this rent. And this capitalist greed is adding more insult to injuries.

The capitalist system is based on super profits and exploitation, not on human needs. The working class needs a system based on social and economic justice and equality, ending exploitation, repression and discrimination on the bases of religion, gender, race, language and nationality.

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November 2005