Remember Pakistan? —Rafia Zakaria 1


If only the remote tribal regions of Pakistan could get as much attention and compassion when they bear the brunt of the unthinking cruelty of nature, perhaps they would be invested in the welfare of a world that so resolutely ignores them

The Balochistan earthquake struck in the early hours of Tuesday, October 28, and within minutes, villages in the craggy landscape of western Balochistan were reduced to rubble. Pakistan’s meagre emergency response system went into action, but as expected, it increasingly fell short of the demands of the catastrophe. Within hours, the death toll, initially estimated to be under a hundred, climbed to nearly two hundred, with aid agencies on the scene estimating that the ultimate toll would likely exceed five hundred dead.The initial quake, which measured 6.3 on the Richter scale, was also estimated to have left over 20,000 people homeless and consigned to braving the oncoming winter without a roof over their heads.

In the Kashmir-NWFP earthquake of 2005, Pakistani and Muslim Americans were at the forefront of relief efforts. Within a few hours, statements were issued by major Muslim American organisations that were initiating fund drives and mobilising local communities to help the affected. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were collected, and emails were circulated throughout the community focusing on getting not only money, but medical supplies and other relief items as well.

Yet this time around, over twenty-four hours after the earthquake, most Muslim American organisations have failed to issue even a single statement expressing their sorrow and concern over the tragedy.

Twenty-four hours after the earthquake, the websites of the Islamic Society of North America and the Council of American Islamic Relations, two of the largest umbrella organisations for American Muslims, failed to have a single mention of the tragedy.

The Council of American Islamic Relations, which routinely issues alerts to its sizeable database of American Muslims asking for action on various issues, made no mention at all of the increasing death toll in Balochistan.

If the silence of Muslim Americans is perturbing, so is the silence of the American presidential candidates, both of whom have repeatedly sparred on the issue of Pakistan and its role in American foreign policy in recent weeks. Neither the Republican candidate, who has regularly referred to Pakistan as a great ally, nor the Democratic candidate, who has called for better relations with the people of Pakistan, has bothered to say anything about the tragedy in Balochistan.

In the frenzied week before the elections, it seems that those vying for the White House have far more important things on their agenda. Lost among the endless conjecturing over who would be the victor, the news of hundreds dead in Pakistan barely got a fifteen-second mention.

The ignorance of a catastrophe in a remote region of a poor country is hardly a novel phenomenon, and the callousness of the wealthy in similar situations has been much lamented. But the silence over Pakistan’s tragedy is notable not because of the general low priority given to such events, but because this country’s ‘remote tribal regions’ have been the subject of so much consternation and controversy around the world in recent days.

With scores of news reports devoted to discussion, dissecting and investigating the tribal areas of Pakistan, the sudden silence over a natural disaster taking place so close to the demographic and geographic focus of the war on terror provides clues to its disastrous course in the region. While attention is reserved for the remote regions of Pakistan when they threaten the world, a terse cold shoulder is turned to them in their time of need. Perhaps, then, their lack of interest in promoting the security interests of Western nations is not so alarming.

According to reports from the region, the current scale of the rescue effort is once again an illustration of low state penetration in the area. According to Malik Siraj Akbar, who heads the Quetta bureau of Daily Times, most of the earthquake’s victims had little hope that even the Pakistani government or the army would actually aid those in need. Mr Akbar, who was directly affected by the quake, says that most relief efforts were being carried out by the villagers themselves and no army officials were observed digging the many mass graves that were needed to bury the dead. As he recounted, “the army officers set up camp for themselves inside school buildings that were not destroyed, arranging for their own comfort while local populations scrambled to bury the dead.”

Several international NGOs that are already in the area were seen participating in the aid effort, but the bulk of work was being done by the locals who said that “they were glad that their neighbours had come to their aid”.

The dynamics of the aftermath of the earthquake present an apt microcosm of the problems afflicting the western areas of Pakistan, which are dominated by tribal politics. As can be seen, the interest of transnational bodies, be they Muslim groups or nations calling themselves allies, is fleeting and transient, devoted to scoring strategic points rather than committed to actual improvement and reform.

In one of the poorest areas of a poor country, resources are scarce and state penetration is limited. Government agencies that do not go into these areas for emergency management, including the army and civilians, are more concerned with ensuring their own VVIP treatment (while also scoring political points) than actually addressing the needs of the affected.

Much is said, both by the administration in Islamabad and the bosses in Washington, about winning the hearts and minds of local Pakistanis as the key to winning the war on terror. This ‘hearts and minds’ truism, while a neat and nifty slogan, seems sadly forgotten at a time when it could reap the most rewards.

If only the remote tribal regions of Pakistan could get as much attention and compassion when they bear the brunt of the unthinking cruelty of nature, perhaps they would be invested in the welfare of a world that so resolutely ignores them.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at

 

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Source: Daily Times, 1st November 2008


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