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Rough Cut: Pakistan: Cold Comfort
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.

You've been to the quake zone twice now. What took you back there a second time?
I went to Pakistan in early December to volunteer at a medical camp, and I spent a fair amount of time in the area reporting for the Globe and Mail in Canada and spending time with the refugees as they prepared for winter. I saw how the relief agencies were operating, and amongst them were these Islamic fundamentalist groups. I thought there was a curious dynamic playing out, where different groups were battling for the hearts and the minds of the people. Some of these areas were previously the strongholds of Islamic groups, and it was interesting to see how the Western groups were now here penetrating these areas. When I got back from the trip, I wrote a diary that was published in several newspapers and webzines and that's when I developed the story idea to go back with a camera and film this battle playing out.

Every morning for about 20 minutes there would be a sermon by the local cleric talking about how the people in this earthquake zone were suffering because they had not been in touch with God.

So how was the battle playing out when you returned?
I was living in a tent by the side of the road, and around 5 a.m., you would hear the mosque playing the local morning prayers. Every morning for about 20 minutes there would be a sermon by the local cleric talking about how the people in this earthquake zone were suffering because they had not been in touch with God and because they were not following Islam properly. A lot of refugees I spoke to said it was difficult enough losing family members and their homes, but to have to listen to the idea that they were not good Muslims and that is why they are suffering was just too much to take.

The survivors must have been very vulnerable -- was the tactic working?
Well, people really are at the edge of their nerves. There are tremors happening on an almost daily basis, and with mudslides and miserable weather and also knowing that the clerics do have influence over the population, who are largely uneducated in those areas, it plays on their minds. People came up to me and said, "Look, we are village folk. We are good Muslims. Why didn't the earthquake strike the cities where there are the Western influences these clerics are talking about?"

How were the Western aid groups approaching the relief effort?
I have never seen so many international agencies and volunteers flood the area. Americans, Canadians, Japanese, Chinese, Malaysians, Indonesians -- practically every nationality I could think of, many who had never done this before -- had come into the area to help rebuild shelters, provide food, help with local nonprofits on the ground and to work with people who had never interacted with Western people before. It was a real eye-opener. For years, these people had been hearing that the West was evil, that it didn't care about them, and that the Muslim world is the only one that cares about them. To actually see these volunteers get down and dirty in the snow, live in the tents next to the refugees, eat the same food as them, rebuild shelters for them, and look after them -- a lot of people actually got to see the other side.

Does it look like these relief groups are going to stay and see through the winter?
It does look like many will stick around until the winter has come and gone. A group from Cuba will be there for six months; others are coming for two or three months, then leaving. Doctors Without Borders has been there since the beginning. The United Nations is appealing for more money because it is running out. A lot of the money that has been pledged by international donors hasn't come through yet. A lot of these nonprofits will not be able to stay if the money doesn't come through.

Did you get a sense of donor fatigue because of the tsunami and that there has been less focus on this disaster?
Yes, a lot of relief workers on the ground will tell you that. It's because this part of the world isn't well-known, it isn't a tourist destination like most of the tsunami-hit areas, and there were no foreigners who died -- no British, Canadians, Americans -- and so no real connection for those countries. Let's be honest. This is a relatively backward part of the world, and it is more difficult for people to open up their purses for a country that is known as a hard-line Muslim country. Having said that, a lot of relief workers said that some people had given money for the very reason that people living in these remote areas would realize that the rest of the world was aware of them and did care about them.

Let's be honest. This is a relatively backward part of the world, and it is more difficult for people to open up their purses for a country that is known as a hard-line Muslim country.


How do you think the Pakistani government has handled the crisis?
One of the things the world should realize is that Pakistan is a developing country, and it just doesn't have the resources to handle a natural calamity of this proportion. But I think the Pakistani army, which has been at the forefront of the relief operation, has done a tremendous job -- distributing food, setting up refugee camps and, most important, maintaining law and order so that chaos does not break out. It's important that foreign agencies can bring in the food, the tents, the oil, and that people aren't stealing or stockholding things.

By the time you left, do you feel everything was being done that could be done to save lives?
To save lives, yes. To rebuild lives, no. Nothing is being done to help them deal with the trauma. So many people have lost so many family members. So many women have been left widowed, and children orphaned. Those people are surviving in tents where there is constant rain, constant snow, constant fear that another tremor will bring their only shelter back down. I felt that after spending 10 days there, I had to leave because the trauma of being there was just too much. And I didn't even suffer through an earthquake or lose anybody. I felt this overwhelming amount of trauma where people didn't know how to deal with their loss.

So there are no people attached to these relief organizations who specialize in the grief aspect of this disaster.
I didn't see any groups counseling anybody on how to deal with the fact that you have lost your five children, or you lost your husband and you're left with two small children to take care of. The other thing I noticed when I was interviewing people, very seldom did anyone break down. It was as if they had accepted the death and destruction around them.

Did you feel this acceptance was because of their faith?
I did feel that. One of the most powerful things I saw amidst the destruction was that when prayers would come up, people would lay their prayer mats down on the rubble and pray there. That is the only thing that holds them together -- the power of prayer, the power of the connection they feel they have with God and Islam. One woman I spoke to told me when she really misses the three children she has lost, she simply prays to feel a connection to them. Because they don't have trauma counseling, I feel it's the power of prayer that gets them through each day.

From your perspective as a Pakistani Muslim educated in the West, how did you interpret this faith?
I felt that if I had gone through the earthquake and had no choices in my life, I would have turned to religion as a source of strength because religion is something that keeps one whole and clinging to hope in desperate situations. But I also thought that people were turning to religion because they were being forced to turn to religion -- because the local clerics and religious groups were telling them they weren't Muslim enough. For some it was pressure, for some it was fear that another earthquake would come.

You mentioned that you felt the international news media moved on pretty quickly from this story. What under-reported issues or regions of the world are you interested in covering?
I'm interested in the Muslim communities in Europe. Europe is in a unique position right now. Many European countries -- France, Germany, Italy, England -- have large numbers of Muslims in their populations, and for one reason or another, they have had problems. Either Muslim immigrants haven't integrated into society, or they feel that after the Madrid bombings and the London bombings, there will be this backlash against them. So I am interested in exploring these relationships to see whether there really is a conflict and how this conflict can be overcome and, in some ways, how Muslims can better integrate themselves in society.

What's your take on the Danish cartoon uproar and the reactions it has ignited around the world?
I feel that freedom of expression and freedom of speech are very important in the free world because they bring things out into the open that need to be brought out. It's a way for democracies to thrive. Having said that, I also think that the uproar created by these cartoons is something that is being used by conservative Muslims to fuel the Muslim population in Europe and around the world. Most of the people who are out on the streets protesting haven't even seen the cartoons. They don't even know how they would find it offensive. There are enormous problems in the Muslim world, in terms of education, enlightenment for women, but instead of concentrating on things like that, the energy is being used to fire up these young people to go out on the streets and protest and burn embassies and throw stones.

Perhaps it was wrong for the cartoons to have been published, but the countries they were published in were free countries with freedom of expression to do these things. And Muslims need to realize that.

Do you think it was wrong to publish the cartoons?
Perhaps it was wrong for the cartoons to have been published, but the countries they were published in were free countries with freedom of expression to do these things. And the Muslims need to realize that. They need to realize that the rules and regulations that work in the Muslim world do not work in the Western world. Sitting down and having a constructive dialogue to help people in Europe understand why the Muslims find this so offensive and to help Muslims learn how to move ahead. For too long the impression of Muslims from the outside world has been youth burning things down and strapping suicide jackets on themselves and blowing themselves up, and [the reactions to] these cartoons are perpetuating that.

Where do you see the leadership coming from in the Muslim world to forge something constructive on these issues?
I think perhaps Pakistan can take the lead. Perhaps Turkey can as well, being part of Europe. But someone has to start talking about why the Muslim world has become a boiling pot and look beyond these cartoons to what the ideological reasons are for this divide.

You mention Pakistan could take a lead. What makes you optimistic about your country and taking on such a role?
I feel that for the first time in a long time, educated Pakistanis are returning to their country to start up educational projects, to start up businesses, so instead of the brain-drain that happened in the 1950s and 1960s, the country is growing and improving economically. There are problems on the political front with the civil war in Waziristan, but on the economic front, things are happening in the country that I have not seen happen for a long time. There is a birth of media in the country; an enormous number of TV channels, radio, news magazines have sprung up in the last few years. A lot of these things were not possible in Pakistan under the military regime of the 1980s; now most Pakistanis are seeing a reversal in that. There are more rights and more opportunities for young people to do things.

Is it mostly economic success driving this or are there other factors at play?
There are other factors. The world has changed and the government has had to loosen its grip on the people. Apart from more economic opportunities, there are more social outlets. For example, when I was growing up in Pakistan, there were no theater groups, and cinemas were limited. Now there are film festivals in many of the larger cities, and fashion shows; you can see international artists in concert in Pakistan; these things were not possible 10 to 15 years ago.

This is not what the world is used to hearing about Pakistan.
I know. The news that comes out of Pakistan is always geared toward terrorism and fundamentalism. But when you give people freedom of expression and the freedom to go out and be social and to express themselves, you will see a change. I see that coming about in my country.