The Enemy Within - The Pakistani Army and the Kashmir Earthquake

Humans cannot thwart nature from weaving deadly dreams from time to time. The earthquake of 8th October which measured 7.6 on the Richter scale and killed 87,350 people and made many millions homeless was just the latest sequel. As the ground shook under the feet of the Kashmiris who already live under the shadow of terror and oppression, one cannot but feel a pinch of anger at the Gods who seem to be competing with humans to shower misery on a region once termed ‘Paradise on Earth’.

That being said, what humans can expect from their government is a swift response to such a catastrophe. Soon after the earthquake, the BBC quoted a Pakistani army official declaring that “those destined to die in the quake have died and there is nothing anyone can do about it. But let me assure you that not a single survivor is now likely to die of cold or hunger.” Noble pledge, once reckons. Alas, only if it was true.

On December 9, two months after the earthquake, Mohammad Shehzad, writing for Rediff after visiting the quake-hit areas, overheard an army official admitting that “thousands of victims are sleeping rough without tents”. When pointed out that people on the streets of Muzaffarabad were begging the army for tents, he added- “We cannot even provide everyone tents let alone winterised ones.” As another minor tremor hit the valley on December 12, the United Nations reported that more than 1.2 million survivors had no blankets, 170,000 plastic sheets were needed to protect them from rain and snow, and 200,000 tarpaulins were being sought for to insulate survivors from ground frost. Already eight deaths due to cold have been reported with the first snowfall on December 9, and one only wonders how perilous the situation is among the survivors in the mountains.

‘Winter Race’ is the name of the operation launched by the Pakistani army to channel resources towards the mountain people and facilitate rehabilitation. Comprising approximately 40,000 households living above 5,000 feet, they form a major chunk of the victims. On November 29, army spokesperson Major General Shaukat Sultan stated on Geo TV that 10,000 shelters had already been built for them. However, a UN official pointed out the inexplicable dichotomy at play- “On November 27, the Economic Affairs Division of the government [had] rejected a UN proposal to build 28,000 such shelters for the vulnerable population above the snowline.”

Closer to the ground, the situation hardly paints a rosy picture. Four weeks after the quake, pneumonia was already rampant in the relief camps. “It will be a problem because if people are living in cold weather with inadequate food supplies they are more susceptible to illness”, said Rachel Levy of the World Health Organisation. She worryingly predicted “another wave of deaths, because of disease, cold, lack of shelter and unsafe water”. Adding to that, on December 7, a fire broke out at the camp in Mansehra district killing seven people including four children. The cause of the fire- candles which were being used in the absence of electricity.

Immediately after the quake, Pervez Hoodboy noted in the Economic and Political Weekly (October 12) that in Balakot no efforts were  being made to extricate the dead and/or wounded from underneath the rubble by the army. Yes, the ordinary people were resolutely working at it, but aside from a few US Chinooks hovering over the mountains of Mansehra distributing aid, official presence was conspicuously negligible. Three weeks on, Brigadier Maqsood Ahmed said, “I think the way the people…have pulled themselves together is simply magnificent.” But what about his force? The BBC quoted bus driver Hussain Kiyani- “Whatever we need to do, we have to do it ourselves.”

Distribution of food and other supplies on the ground was haphazard at best- with bags being chucked from trucks at the rioting crowd, and often the clothing was not suitable for the weather. To assure steady supply of aid to the camps on the bank of the Neelum river, the adjacent road needed to be rebuilt. After fourteen days of working at it, albeit being bogged down by continuous landslides, the army repaired 4 kilometres. There were only 196 more kilometres to be rebuilt!

As if the survivors’ troubles weren’t enough, they also have to deal with what Aamer Ahmed Khan called “the law of the jungle in the quake zone”. As the battle for survival gets “grimmer by the minute” due to shortage of relief materials, villagers increasingly become cynical. Nur Ellahi (a villager) told the BBC- “I have seen people fighting with axes over relief goods.” Let alone the rogue elements outside the administration, a lack of guards for the guardians is complicating matters. On December 10, there were protests in the capital of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir against the rape of four girls within a week in the camps, allegedly due to the army’s “patronising of elements involved in criminal activities”.

There have been numerous protests on a range of issues in PoK since the quake, but the response has been unequivocal- draconian clampdown. On November 7, after the army rangers prevented people from crossing the line of control between Poonch and Rawalakot to meet loved ones in Jammu and Kashmir, their patience withered away. Shouting “Let people cross. What we want is freedom” against Islamabad which provided the international media with ample evidence that PoK was not even close to being azaad (free), they attempted to forcibly cross the border. The army responded not with understanding for the victims of nature’s worse wrath, but by pelting them with tear gas shells.

This was by no means the first act of atrocity committed by the army- on October 13, thirteen people were reportedly killed in the Shi’a areas of Gilgit district. Even the Pakistan Human Rights Commission was vociferous in its condemnation of the heinous act. Ehsan Ahrari, writing for Asia Times, quoted a prominent leader in PoK explaining that “people are angry here as they think Islamabad has double standards, even in handling natural disasters”. It must be noted that there was a lot of feet-dragging over opening the five points on the line of control to facilitate civilian interactions in the first place.

Although Jan Egeland, the UN’s Relief Coordinator, admitted that he had never seen “this kind of a logistical nightmare before”, an exception were the helicopter sorties carried out by the army, which were the only effective means to supply relief materials to villages situated high in the mountains. However, “aerial drops often miss[ed] and supplies land[ed] up thousands of feet below or in deep forests”. Moreover, on October 17, Pakistan rejected an Indian offer of providing rescue aircraft by insisting that its pilots man them, thereby torpedoing an effective rescue measure. Salman Rushdie summed up his frustration on the chopper fiasco aptly- “Meanwhile the quake victims went on dying”.

The picture portrayed above is gloomy at best. What made it unacceptable was when Jan Vandemoortele, the UN Emergency Coordinator, assessed the situation on November 8. He argued that the task of rescue and rehabilitation was colossal, yet “achievable”.

The shortage of hard cash was cited as the prima facie factor hampering relief efforts. Postponing the purchase of F-16s from Washington , Pervez Musharraf complained that the international community had not come forward adequately to help Pakistan in its plight. Indeed, less than 1/3rd of the initial $312 million sought by Islamabad to supply the worst hit areas in Muzaffarabad, Hazara and Tangdhar was raised. The UN managed to raise around $135 million out of the $550 million it estimated to be the initial costs. The Pakistani government estimated the total sum required for both short (rescue and relief supply) and long-term (rehabilitation) to be $5.2 billion, a staggering sum by any yardstick.

However, by November 19 the world had more than fulfilled its pledge. Aside from the thousands of medical teams on the ground, relief materials being shipped and in some cases (such as the US ), direct military help, the world had raised $5.4 billion for the quake victims. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz admitted, “The rough total we have now is $5.4 billion.” Then what did go wrong? With pneumonia and diarrhoea rampant, hospitals in Muzaffarabad were still short of supplies and staff in December, while the stocks of the Pakistani army were being filled.

The UNHCR (UN agency for refugees) provided the army with 2,000 winterised tents for its ‘Winter Race’. They ended up being sold on the black market. This nauseating fact only came to light when a farmer named Nizamuddin bought them from the local market, and a UNHCR investigation vindicated its suspicion. Contrast this with the earlier cited quote by an army official about no tents, “let alone winterised ones” being available for distribution, despite suffering people begging on the streets for them.

James Morris of the UNFPA (UN population fund) urgently sought $70 million to maintain regular helicopter sorties for delivering aid to far flung villages. “We have never had a crisis where the use of helicopters was so critical”, he said, mentioning that his funds will run out in January. Pakistan ’s refusal to allow Indian pilots to help has been noted earlier. What is even more shocking was that, as C K Lal argued, “when tragedy struck in Kashmir , Pakistani helicopters were too busy serving the needs of their own troops too worry about the suffering of common Kashmiris.” Parallels have already been drawn with the December 15, 1974 quake that hit the villages near the Karakoram highway that killed 10,000 people- the subsequent foreign aid being allegedly used to kick start Pakistan ’s nuclear weapons programme.

Initial compensation was announced to be Rupees 1 lakh (100,000) per person which was later downgraded to per family. Given the nature of sprawling families in the Indian sub-continent, we can do the math about how much each person would have received on average. Indeed, out of the Rupees 25,000-odd that was probably handed out to each person, a substantial amount was “recuperated” by the army from “tent sales”. The army has lost 7,400 personnel, 4 units in all and a lot of its communication infrastructure in the quake- perhaps it is time to refurbish them too!

In an interview on October 20, Pervez Musharraf vehemently denied that the vacuum left by the army’s lacklustre performance in relief works was being filled in by Islamist organisations. However, he later retracted when the evidence on the ground began to filter through the international media by saying, “I know that some extremist outfits placed on [the government’s] watch list are participating in relief activities.” Outfits ranging from the Hamaad-ud-Daawa (the new avatar of Lashkar-e-Toiba) to Harkatul Mujahideen, Ummah Tameer-e-Nau (with alleged al-Qaeda links) and the al-Rashid trust (which funds the Jaish-e-Mohammed) have “won significant gratitude and support from the general public”. Syed Saleem Shahzad, writing for Asia Times, quoted Shaukat, a local resident- “Suddenly, tall and strongly built youth with long beards emerged and spread out all over in an organised manner, starting relief operations within an hour of the tremors.”

Hafiz Abdul Rauf (Chairman, Social Welfare Wing, Lashkar-e-Toiba) was quoted saying, “The mujahideen remained unhurt in this crisis and our physically fit and trained teams carried out massive rescue jobs before anybody came” The terror infrastructure that India bitterly complains about (and whose existence Pakistan denies) remained intact. There was little to ‘fret’ really, for- as Saleem Hashmi, spokesperson for the Hizbul Mujahideen said- “some were in Indian Kashmir at the time of the earthquake and they were not affected.” Indeed, the 29 October Delhi bombings by alleged Lashkar militants, along with the murder of Ghulam Nabi Lone (Education Minister, Jammu & Kashmir) and a range of fidayeen attacks on civilians in Srinagar may well have been efforts to provoke India into launching a fresh offensive. That would reinforce the popular portrayal of India as the terrorising power in the region and shove all of Pakistan ’s failures under the carpet. “Overall, the level of attempts at infiltration by militants is the same as last year. There has really been no major let up,” an officer in the Indian army said. Naugam and Tanghar districts have witnessed thwarted infiltration attempts since the quake. This despite BBC’s Soutik Biswas quoting the United Jihad Council on October 21 when it declared that “it is suspending operations against Indian security forces in the aftermath of the earthquake”.

The earthquake has left a devastating imprint on Kashmir . The worst tragedy is that the consequent relief effort is being jeopardised and compromised by the problematic juxtaposition of the inefficiencies and corruption within the army and the government, and the parallel setup of the jihadi organisations. A Pakistani army officer described his dilemma to the BBC. He complained that unless he painted a rosy picture of the ground realities, there was no hope of aid filtering down. “But if I don’t make a fuss”, said he, “I don’t get what I need”. The ideological implications of the jihadi infiltration of public life could have similar effects as the Hezbollah and Hamas have had in the Middle East , as Talat Masood argues. General Hamid Gul (ex-ISI chief) drew parallels with the 1970 flood relief in East Pakistan which stirred popular disillusionment. The jihadi junta might seem a more attractive administration to the populace at this critical hour. Already the US was complaining on November 1 that a rocket propelled grenade had been fired on one of its Chinooks doing regular sorties to distribute aid. This coincided with Ayman al-Zawahiri’s declaration for unflinching support for the quake victims from al-Qaeda.

During a monumental crisis such as this, it is not who provides the help that matters to the people, it is whether they are receiving help at all. It is therefore of crucial importance that it is the jihadi elements that have replaced the government in many areas in providing relief to the victims. Whether their efforts will lead to permanent radicalisation of the region in the long-term, time will tell. It does not bode well for the Musharraf regime, even though it chooses to ignore it now.

I conclude with two excerpts from Pakistani newspaper that sum up the entire situation-

Frontier Post

“The administration was expected to act extraordinarily to cope with this horrendous aftermath. But it has not. It has palpably, flatly failed to rise up to the challenges.”


“Despite numerous announcements by the government, many people are still miserably awaiting help.”

[The author is based at the University of Warwick, England]




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