Pakistan: Cold Comfort
A battle for hearts and minds in the quake zone
BY Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
February 21, 2006
Interview With Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
The reporter talks about how the relief operation is saving lives but not rebuilding them. She also weighs in on the cartoon controversy and reveals why she is optimistic about Pakistan's future.
A regular contributor to FRONTLINE/World, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and is the first woman in her family to receive a Western education. She graduated with honors from Smith College and went on to complete two master's degrees at Stanford University, in international policy studies and communication. Her 2004 film Reinventing the Taliban? won several awards, including a Special Jury Award at the Banff Television Festival in Canada and the American Women in Radio and Television Award for Outstanding Documentary.
For millions of years, the Indian subcontinent has been slowly crashing into the Himalayan Mountains. The earthquake that flattened mountain villages in Pakistan, India and Kashmir on October 8, 2005, was a violent reminder of this tectonic drift. The quake registered at least a 7.6 on the Richter scale. A month later, the death toll stood at more than 87,000. By most accounts, more than 3 million people were left homeless.
In the wake of the disaster, who gets help and from whom has highlighted the already heated politics of the area. In this week's Rough Cut, FRONTLINE/World reporter Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy travels by helicopter to Balakot, the epicenter of the quake. Here she takes us into the tents of women who lost their husbands and children to the earthquake. She visits makeshift clinics overwhelmed by patients, and finds a mix of medicine and religious ideology being dispensed.
Among the many organizations and volunteers that have come to help the earthquake victims are Islamic militant groups, some of which have been labeled as "terrorist" organizations by the U.S. and Pakistani governments. With a wide network of young recruits -- and the ability to move quickly through these remote mountains -- the groups were some of the first to reach the victims. Fighters became relief workers overnight.
Obaid-Chinoy visits one Islamic camp run by Jamaat Ud Dawa, a group outlawed by the government and whose leader, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, was detained in Lahore recently over the violent cartoon protests. Inside the group's camp in Balakot, Obaid-Chinoy finds a model of efficiency, where there is electricity, running water, mosques and functioning hospitals.
Wearing a modest headscarf and shalwar kameez, our reporter is told by a man carrying a large knife to cover her face before she speaks with Abu Zargam, the camp's leader. He only agrees to an interview with her if she is not filmed sitting next to him.
Zargam has his own explanation for the quake's devastation and the role of Islam in its aftermath. "People here agree that the earthquake came because of mistakes and immoral acts," Zargam tells Obaid-Chinoy. "God wants us to rectify our mistakes and adopt true Islam. People are so happy with us, they think that God has sent them prophets."
His message has found an audience in those who have nothing left to lose. But it doesn't sit well with many of the other relief agencies, and even some villagers doubt the sincerity of the Islamic groups.
"To me," says Obaid-Chinoy, "it seemed as if a battle was waging in the midst of the relief operations, between the Islamic groups and the international relief organizations."
She leaves us with a question: "Who will win the hearts and minds of these people?"
Criag Frey - Providence, RI
How very interesting that the Cubans offered their help to the Pakistanis. Thank you for informing Americans about the relief role countries like Cuba play. Your report on the relief efforts in Pakistan is very refreshing. I was glad to see that those in need are getting help from not only fellow Pakistanis but also relief organizations from around the world. My question to the reporter would be, what are the Americans doing in that area?
Shoa Shah - Chicago, IL
Dear Frontline/World Rough Cuts,You have outdone yourself again. I remember seeing Ms. Obaid on television a few years ago on Frontline/World and she was fantastic. She truly gets the stories; she understands the situation on the ground and "Cold Comfort" is an example of excellent journalism. Since the earthquake, very few television channels have focused on the long-term effects but you and Ms. Obaid have now changed all of that.Thank you for making us understand that there are bigger issues at stake here.
Jamatudawa is a peacefull organization.It follows the life of last Prophet(S.A.W)
Great reporting! Please keep up the good work.
We are proud of Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy as being Pakistani. Women are equally in front with gents in a human cause, and it is an example to the global world.
EJAZ ASHRAF DAR - JHELUM, Punjab-PAKISTAN
This is very much a courageous effort on the part of Ms. Obaid Chinoy to visit and get into the ranks of charities working there. Westerners are being blamed for peaching Christinaity. But we should appreciate the efforts of foreign donors, especially the Holland government who helped immediately. They were the first donors from Europe who arrived.Can someone send me a copy of Ms. Obaid's film?
FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
I am afraid that this film, "Cold Comfort," is not yet available on DVD or cassette. But you can watch this and other videos by Sharmeen Obaid online on our web site.
The U.N. now says that the efforts of foreign donors and the Pakistan government, army and local relief groups have averted a second wave of deaths which had been feared among refugees during the winter months. But a massive reconstruction effort is still needed in the area of Pakistan devastated by last year's powerful earthquake.
Mahommed Dadabhay - Kzn, RSA
We the Muslims should support the Mujahideens in Pakistan and anywhere else in the world.
I'm very pleased to know about such development made by a Pakistani female.
shahzad raja - lahore, pakistan
A very tragic story and thanks to the west for help.
Muhammad Zahid Bashir - Faislabad, Pakistan
I think that Jamatudawa is working in the earthquake affected areas very effectively. I had also a chance to work with these people in those areas as a volunteer. Truly speaking, they are very sincere people and they are doing a very good job.
I think in the wake of the disaster, who gets help and from whom has highlighted the already heated politics of the area.
Jimmy Hawks - Jackson, TN
I do appreciate Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's work. A bold, courageous, and brilliant reporter that explains in a pure human sense the plight of the Afghani and Pakistani world. Through her work understanding the people of this part of the world have been brought into my home and heart. I believe the world is a better place with Sharmeen.
Muhammad Saqib - Lahore, Pakistan
We have seen here in Pakistan that most of the international NGO's came here for spy purposes or for the preaching of non-Islamic religons. But Islam will dominate. Insha Allah
Rasheed Shervani - Jeddah, KSA
Your appreciation for Jamat's dedication and sincerity is ok but you are trying to give great credit to international NGOs and linking the former to terrorists. Asking for freedom means terrorism. Killing selected Muslim leaders by pinpointed missiles from f16 fighters is said to be their right of self-defense. Now after Iraq, the drama of Iran has been started. Alas, we Muslims are still divided; we are made to kill each other. May Allah save us.
Fighting for peace is not terrorism. The Indian army kills Muslims daily; they are not called terrorists. But when Muslims fight to defend their homeland, they are terrorists. My salute to our Muslim brothers and sisters. None of them are terrorists; we know they came to rescue before even our army and NGOs reached there. But we are scared they are terrorists; shame on you. Instead of praising them, you are trying to prove them terrorists; what a shame.
ali khan - peshawar, pakistan
I like Jumaat Ud Dawa because they are the most pious people in the world at this time.They follow the principles of prophet Mohammmad(PBUH) in the right way. Please do not blame them that they are terrorist.
J Cheema - Milwaukee, WI, USA
Seems like Ms Obaid went with a very precise agenda... to discredit the work of the relief provided by the local relief workers. While she is all praise for the internationally funded NGOs, she is very critical about the locals.Unfortunately, this is a very common thinking of the Third World expatriates -- for many of the expatriates, the locals are just "goofs," whereas the international folks are the "authority." (Note: she asked the representative from Doctors Without Borders for his estimate of rebuilding. His word is to be taken as authoritative. Compare this line of questioning to the type of questions she posed to the locals. Locals were just asked about "women" and "Islam" ... nothing about "rebuilding" or "relief efforts." Very insulting to their intelligence and very disrespectful of their work.)Compare dirty and unhygienic conditions in the Internationally funded NGO in the film's beginning to the local relief org's clean and orderly environment. Not only are they providing the refugees with living basics, they are organizing schools for the kids (even computer education) as well as future planning for the summer by building more stable structures for the families leaving the camp.She seems to be there to pick a fight with the locals -- asking offensive questions like "What is your connection with the Laskar, Kashmir, Militancy?" Though, she herself later mentions that the camp administrator was a school teacher, she goes out of her way to discredit his (and his group's) work! Ms Obaid, with all due respect, what is the point? Did you make this piece to further a specific agenda? Are you really saying that all the locals are "militants" and thus deserve our scorn rather than our gratitude for their volunteer efforts and their commitment for the long term?
FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
Dear J. Sheema,
I spent a fair amount of time in Balakot before deciding to film this short piece for PBS, so I saw the battle between the Islamic groups and the locals playing out right before my eyes. Various Pakistani NGO's, and both the U.S. and Pakistani governments claim that Jamaat-ud-Dawa is linked with the banned terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba. I know for a fact (after speaking to them) that many of the young men who were volunteering in the camp had fought in Kashmir.
Also, a few weeks after I returned from Balakot, the Pakistani government raided a number of these relief camps and arrested a few of their workers, further evidence that there are strong links between these groups and militant organizations.
The Pakistani NGO's are doing a very good job in Pakistan as is the Pakistan army (my interview with Rough Cuts clearly states that). The Cuban doctors camp was being run by a Pakistani and not an international NGO and as far as I could see things were going well there.
Sahar Kausar - Newark, NJ
I'm a history teacher and I have been waiting to educate my 9th graders about the earthquake for some time now. I didn't have any good material until your website sent off Ms. Obaid to Pakistan. Fantastic is all I can say. Thank you for educating us all and thank you Ms. Obaid for spreading the message of good will. May God bless you always.
Archie - San Francisco, CA
She has great perspective and provides real insight. Good to know that Frontline World / PBS continues to support real news and real reporters.
I much appreciate your efforts in the relief work. May God give you more strength to contribute more. Best of Luck.
Frank Kite - Houston, TX
I saw the piece and almost cried when the young widow said that men have tried to take advantage of her. What a world we live in. As expected from FL World, a fantastic film, great reporting and I think your reporter had the warmth and camera presence to pull this piece together. By the way, I quite liked the music. It blended in well with the reporter's surroundings. Good stuff. I look forward to more. Thank you.
Omair Haq - San Francisco, CA
Ms. Obaid-Chinoy has opened my eyes to the relief work in Pakistan. I am an American-Pakistani and I've yet to read a more thorough and important piece about the earthquake. She has done a great job; more kudos to her. I am especially proud of her because she is a Pakistani woman and she's Muslim. I am hoping that you will air this piece on PBS so that millions of Americans get educated about the battle playing out in Pakistan. Congratulations FL World; you have done a tremendous job by giving this young woman a voice in mainstream American media!
Ali Imran Shaheen - Lahore, Pakistan
Well done Sharmeen. Thanks for putting [out] the realities of relief work of so callled terrorist groups by the Pakistani and American government. I am friend Od Abu Zargam. He is a hardliner and I hope you will keep your mind on his relief work and hard work.
Awful! Bad choice of music and horrible sense of timing. Stopped watching after 5 minutes.
Shehla Sheikh - Philadelphia, PA
Very very mediocre. There is no story structure to her piece. It just seems to be a string of sound bytes and lots of footage of Obaid running around. I am surprised FL World agreed to run something this poorly produced.
Khili R.RAHI - Toronto, Ontario, Canada
She is not only pretty, her deeds are powerful enough to attract the attention of
my two daughters, Sohni and Smira. I am proud of Sharmeen.
Sharmeen has done an excellent job again. Her abilities as a native of Pakistan have made it so she can communicate well with the local people. I can't wait to see what she does next. Excellent work!
Charles Tsai - Vancouver, BC
Why all the background music? It's distracting and annoying.
Otherwise, great report.