Why are our earthquake survivors left to die in the cold?
Those who did not die in the quake will die as ‘survivors’ forced to live in the cold, stressed and without shelter. Their immune systems vulnerable, their bodies exposed to so many dangers, what chance have we given them. That’s what happened to five-month-old Arshad Ali whose house was flattened on October 26, 2015.
Anyone too young, too old, sick or pregnant who is a ‘survivor’ has no chance of surviving in a tent in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s (K-P) winter.
If anyone thinks change is afoot in K-P, they need to take a look when Khan Sahib or Raheel Sharif are not visiting. That is when the true face of tabdeeli hits you. That is when five-month-old babies die of pneumonia as they live in tents not made to protect anyone from temperatures close to zero.
After six inches of snow blanketed Shangla district on Tuesday, National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has a decision to make. Was Arshad Shangla’s 50th quake victim, or will those who die of the cold at the hands of our neglect merit a new list?
We will make victims of our survivors. Alive, they barely make the front page; they aren’t either of the two Sharifs or Imran. Dead, they might or might not merit public attention. You see that also depends on how high the toll goes to jolt us into attention. Will the casualties even be jotted down: if a child living in a tent catches a chill and dies weeks after, will some basic health unit even take note his cause of death was neglect post-quake?
Eight days after the quake, the K-P government said it could not reach 15 per cent of the areas affected by the disaster. Two weeks later, instead of making sure every last woman, man and child has been reached, Khan Sahab is making sure he plants those one billion trees.
Villages in Shangla, Dir, Kohistan, Chitral and Bajaur Agency (take a left from Bani Gala and keep going straight till you hit the beige splotch on the map) have been flattened. Damage assessment is nowhere near complete, and survivors have seen first-hand how poorly the surveys to calculate relief are being conducted.
People who live there keep saying the same thing and no one listens:
We have no place to seek shelter, our families are too scared to step inside the few houses that did not collapse as they might fall on our heads; we sleep outside at night. They will keep saying it and we will keep on not listening.
Please Chief Minister Pervez Khattak, spend one night in Chitral, stand between a flimsy tent and the cold hard ground under your feet. And where is Qaumi Watan Party which just rejoined the K-P government – after all the Sherpaos love talking about Pukhtunwali and Pukhtun persecution. Just spend one day with 10-year-old Nosheen in Chitral who really wants to go back to school but her parents worry if they will even survive winter in a tent.
Instead of help, we have reports of politicians using this opportunity to even divert relief towards party workers. Meanwhile, the K-P government gives mixed signals about needing help from other countries, help the federal government refused. NOCs are still an issue for most NGOs; and constituencies where ministers live are almost worse off than the rest. One look at Dir, which Jamaat-e-Islami leader and Minister for Finance Muzaffar Said belongs to, and you’ll see that ministers are busy being ministerial somewhere else.
Announcements were made after survivors spent eight long nights in the cold that people in Chitral were ‘being moved’ to schools. The government tweeted phone numbers which could be called for more information regarding relocation. In the days following the temblor, there was hardly any mobile connectivity in Chitral and Shangla; I wonder how the government expected their tweets to fare.
When you do ask people in Chitral, they tell you they have not been told about relocation. A few struggled to reach schools but upon getting there, found no welcome party to offer help. Mostly, it is just a building they will need to vacate when term starts. What then? No one is reconstructing their homes as they seek shelter, it’s winter after all. The exact same problem has already been played out in Bannu with the IDPs. To paraphrase a scientist, isn’t it insanity to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results?
And in far far away Gilgit, government officials are posing with sacks of relief good for photo ops – goods donated by NGOs.
The army which is usually the knight in shining armour did swoop in initially and help people. Now they too are absent from this picture. I guess a #ThankyouRaheelSharif is in order, for going on a grand world tour like any other politician, after all a war-funded war trumps the evacuation of people in hard to reach areas.
This inertia we face is a combination of a social-media-powered provincial government, an inept federal government busy trying to keep the army from consolidating power, and a lack of interest from all organs of the state and the establishment for the public’s welfare. Unfortunately, the people who really need the government to act like, well, a government are the ones with no voice, no access to justice and no resources of their own.
Knowing all that, the people of Pakistan try to step up; Abbas Town, internally displaced people from North Waziristan, Joseph Colony all are witness to that. The October 2005 earthquake saw mass mobilisation – not just internally but the world responded. And it often seems the government rides the coat tails of these efforts – when we watch, when the world watches, the government has nowhere to hide, so it reacts.
After being part of emergency response volunteer work for years, I can only say Pakistan is becoming habituated to bad news – even its helpful people. The tragedy needs to be bigger, bloodier more horrific each time to elicit a response. This earthquake saw fewer volunteers, fewer donations in comparison to the last disaster which befell Pakistan. The fatigue that is setting in needs a stronger shock with each new calamity, each new terrorist attack.
Yes, over 80,000 people have not perished in this earthquake, but there are thousands who survived who are now living that fine line between survivor and being a casualty on a list.
So no, the earthquake should not be a footnote in the news. And that sense of urgency that we felt in 2005, these people in 2015 deserve no less.
Do we really need 80,000 people dead to mobilise this government?
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.