November 14, 2006
Kashmir Quake: A Year On, What Has Changed
BY David Montero
Survivors of last year's earthquake, which left more than three million homeless, line up to receive supplies to make temporary shelters.
When October 8 came this year, Pakistanis of all stripes stopped to remember the earthquake that struck at 8:52 a.m. one year ago, killing more than 70,000 people.
For most, it's been a year of remorse and reflection, gratitude for the rush of relief that poured in from around the country and around the world. For others, it's been a time of disappointment, even anger; and some feel downright betrayed. President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, armed with more than $6 billion in aid pledges from the international community, vowed to build back and build better. About one-third of that aid is in the hands of the government, with $500 million already dispersed to help families rebuild their homes. But close to 2 million people are still living in temporary shelters, according to a contested assessment by Oxfam, the international relief agency.
Many say blaming the government is to ignore the magnitude of Pakistan's worst natural disaster, which left more than 3 million homeless spread across a mountainous area twice the size of Connecticut.
"It's an absolutely unfair assessment," says Lt. Gen. Ahmed Nadeem, the deputy director of the government's Earthquake Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency."If you consider that 600,000 households had to be paid...it's not an easy task for that area."
That, coupled with the fact that local government has been all but wiped out in many areas, has slowed the flow of cash and the actual reconstruction, many officials in the field told me. The city of Bam in Iran, they said, took a decade to rebuild.
What some see as the Pakistani government's poor response created a vacuum that international organizations and Islamist groups quickly filled. Families took help wherever they could find it. For the United States, it was an opportunity to win points with a people deeply mistrustful of Washington; for Islamists, it was a chance to draw people to their brand of Islam.
Chinooks flew thousands of relief sorties over northern Pakistan. Efforts will continue this winter as part of a sustained U.S. presence in the region.
I wanted to understand how, a year later, the earthquake had changed not only landscapes and lives but also thoughts and perceptions.
In early October, I set out along the winding mountain road back to Balakot and other areas at the center of the quake zone. When I visited nearly a year ago, I found a scene of comprehensive destruction. Now, much of the rubble had been cleared away, and the tent villages had thinned. There were even heartening new signs, such as rows of shelters with shiny metal roofs.
With the physical rebirth of this region, there is also the potential to reverse years of violence and intolerance. October's earthquake struck in the heart of Pakistan's former jihadist territory. After the disaster, the entire world community began to walk its streets.
I asked local political leaders if they had noticed a change.
"Perceptions have changed everywhere," said Munir Lughmani, an official in Mansehra, a district of the North-West Frontier Province. "Prior to the earthquake, it was considered a sin to shake hands with a foreigner. Now exchanges of views are everywhere," he said.
"Prior to the earthquake, it was considered a sin to shake hands with a foreigner. Now exchanges of views are everywhere."
Many Pakistanis I spoke to even praised the United States, saying its contribution would never be forgotten. And the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Ryan C. Crocker, said at a ceremony a few days before the anniversary, that the U.S. government intended to keep up the good work.
"We spent $200 million in the relief operation. We'll spend $200 million in the reconstruction. In the coming year, we'll build 50 schools and 15 health clinics ... and we expect to repeat that for the next four years," he told a crowd in Rashang, one of the most remote valleys in the earthquake zone.
It's the sort of commitment that has healed wounds, said Zahid Amin, the mayor of Muzaffarabad. "There is a change because people have seen that the international community came here to serve humanity." People in his area don't appreciate the ideological ambitions of Islamist groups, he told me. "We don't want to listen to their preaching and long speeches." Local elections held in July bear out Amin's claim. The religious parties participating did miserably.
Since the relief effort, many girls are attending school for the first time in their lives. And women in the North-West Frontier Province, who never left their homes, have started working and enjoying their first communal activities with other women. Given the opportunity, which international organizations carefully brokered with religious leaders and elders, some of the most rigidly conservative communities adopted change.
Tent villages like this one in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Kashmir, continue to hold tens of thousands of earthquake survivors.
But there are countervailing influences. When I returned to Balakot, many of the international groups had gone home. The Resident Coordination Office of the United Nations later told me that about half of roughly 100 international organizations have left. Many were involved only in relief, so they have scaled back now that the reconstruction phase has begun.
"There are not that many any more. But it's not going to be a problem," says Raabya Amjad, the public information officer of U.N. Pakistan.
In their place, another force visibly dominates the area -- the Islamic group Jamaat-ud-Dawa.
Its camps appear to be the largest and most organized. The group's signs crowd the landscape, announcing a full range of relief services in English and Urdu. They are running hospitals and schools.
"Jamaat-ud-Dawa is working very well. They're very good," said Mohammed Naeem, who works at a government hospital in Balakot.
His words have been echoed for months throughout Pakistani society, from the president on down to survivors still living in tents. Jamaat-ud-Dawa was among the first groups to begin relief operations last year. Activists trudged up mountains and down valleys, winning a reputation for quick and efficient relief work. Their activities continue today, showing none of the short-term commitment of some of the large international organizations that arrived soon after the disaster struck.
The Islamic group's activities continue today, showing none of the short-term commitment of some of the large international organizations that arrived soon after the disaster struck.
But Jamaat-ud-Dawa (which means the Society of the Pure) has a murky past. The group was founded in 2002 by Mohammed Hafeez Saeed. Many say it was spawned just days after President Musharraf banned Saeed's earlier organization, called Lashkar-y-Tayyba, which was accused of a number of terrorist attacks in India. Many believe that Jamaat-ud-Dawa is merely the new face of Saeed's jihadist ambitions. In April, the U.S. State Department blacklisted Jamaat-ud-Dawa as a group affiliated with terrorism. But the Pakistani government has not stopped its activities, and the group continues to thrive.
Jamaat-ud-Dawa, although perhaps the most prominent, is not the only group with suspect associations. Al-Rasheed Trust, which the State Department banned for links to al Qaeda, still operates relief centers throughout the earthquake zone. Both organizations receive private cash donations from Pakistanis here and abroad and from donors in the Gulf States, although the extent of the financial support remains unknown.
The massive earthquake split mountains; and monsoon rains have further eroded the landscape.
After 9/11, Washington badgered Pakistan to outlaw groups like Lashkar-y-Tayyba. But for years such groups have operated as an extension of the state, proxies demanded by a war with India that the smaller, poorer Pakistan could not hope to win conventionally. Critics say the state has had a hard time letting go, so now it just turns a blind eye.
In August, I met with Jamaat-ud-Dawa's information secretary, Muhammad Yahya Mujahid. At a hotel in Lahore, he maintained that his group is only involved in legitimate welfare activities. "In simple terms, Hafeez Saeed has no link with Lashkar-y-Tayyba," he said, adding that the group has been a paragon of efficiency in the earthquake zone. "Our field hospital in Muzaffarabad has been made a permanent hospital. The facilities it has can match any international standard," he told me.
Muzaffarabad, the Kashmir capital, with a population of more than 800,000, has only a handful of functioning hospitals. It's easy to see why the authorities would look the other way.
"There may be ideological differences...but for us, they [Jamaat-ud-Dawa] are here for humanitarian efforts, and we'll consider them on the basis of humanitarian efforts," one of the highest-ranking officials in Mansehra, Shakeel Qadir Khan, told me.
Like others I spoke with, Khan downplayed the group's presence, insisting that its role in the reconstruction phase would peter out.
"Reconstruction is very technical. It needs specialists. Organizations like Jamaat-ud-Dawa will not find much in the reconstruction phase," he said.
Driving through the earthquake zone, I saw shattered buildings still littering the roadside, an eerie reminder of how much work is still to be done. Winter is approaching again. This time, however, many international organizations will not be around.
"I think we are going to face a difficult winter this time," said Masood-ur-Rehman, the assistant commissioner of Kashmir. He doubted that local organizations would be able to fill the gap.
David Montero is a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and a regular correspondent for FRONTLINE/World. He is based in Islamabad.
More of our coverage from the region:
Pakistan: Cold Comfort
A battle for hearts and minds in the quake zone
Pakistan: Starting Over in a Ruined Landscape
Pakistan: Life on a Razor's Edge
Pakistan: The Hunt for Osama Bin Laden