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Pakistan’s Earthquake Response

October 13, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


BILL NEELY, ITN News: Noise and terror today for the children who have waited so long for this, their rescue, but they hated it. This boy, injured from head to the one foot he has left, his wounds septic.

Their mothers could be no comfort, all of them traumatized by a huge aftershock overnight, but at least they were out — lining up to pull them out, dozens of foreign helicopters, mostly American, fresh from fighting militants in neighboring Afghanistan.

I went with them today, deep into the mountains where the U.N. says rescuers are losing the race to reach dying victims. Six days on and some towns have seen no aid — the sight of mass destruction imprinted on the eyes of everyone.

The Pakistan government sent no one here — too remote, they said, too difficult. Furious people have to be held back at gunpoint today, but their fury has a cause: Badly injured children, clinging to life and little food or liquid until now. Fathers who carried sons for miles only got help for them today.

It has been a long, long wait. Some of the injured who came here to be rescued didn’t survive. The air crews say others don’t survive the flight out. It is, even after six days, a brutal battle to live.

They have left behind ghost towns; from the mosque to the center they lie abandoned, bodies in the rubble. Pakistan’s army is nearby but has done little. The country’s prime minister conceded to me today more should have been done.

SHAUKAT AZIZ: The people are correct that it took a while. But now we have realized why it took awhile, because there was no access, no logistics, nothing on the ground. Everything has to be flown in. That has limitations.

BILL NEELY: Prime Minister, the people we’ve spoken to are very angry that your aid was too late.

SHAUKAT AZIZ: We have done the best with the available resources. Now international resources have come, we’ll do even better.

BILL NEELY: Dozens more American helicopters are promised. Some crews have come straight from a very different disaster.

LT. ERICK SACKS: Quite a few of our team members that are here came directly from Hurricane Katrina. They had a few days at home, but then they came right out to Pakistan to help out here.

BILL NEELY: And they are helping, there’s no question. But with two million homeless and a million in dire need of the very basics of life, help is vital. Nothing, though, can quite erase the pain and the deep sadness here.

JIM LEHRER: And now more on Pakistan’s response to the quake disaster; Ray Suarez has that story.

RAY SUAREZ: And for that response, we turn to Munir Akram, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations.

Mr. Ambassador, welcome. As you just heard in our report, the correspondent was visiting places where still no Pakistan government aid has been offered on day six since the quake. Why did that happen?

MUNIR AKRAM: I think you have to appreciate that the area that has been devastated is about 1,000 square miles of territory, which is mountainous and inaccessible in the best of times. With this earthquake and the roads having been broken down by the earthquake, the only way in was through helicopters. Pakistan had only 35 helicopters.

We appealed for helicopters, and we have been getting them slowly, but we have been — we have had to prioritize. We’ve had to go to the areas with the largest population centers, the most injured were, and obviously this has been a long and arduous effort. Help has been coming in. As we have access, we’ve rebuilt the roads.

We’ve got to the main towns now. But still the remote villages, the roads are still broken. We can only get there by air. The helicopter capacity is limited even with the international assistance. So we’re getting there as soon as we can, but one has to appreciate that the area is huge; the number of people involved are enormous. And, therefore, they will always of course be people who we have not got to, but this is not for lack of will. It is a lack of capability

RAY SUAREZ: Was it also, sir, from a lack of planning? Many reports from the region say that what roads there are were jammed with private vehicles, that people who had waited for a government response finally took things into their own hands and when the army arrived, the roads were already impassable.

MUNIR AKRAM: No. It is I think not — who can plan for an event like this? By definition an emergency is something which is not fully planned for. And for a country like Pakistan, it is a country with limited capacity, both financial and technical. Therefore, I think that people, of course the people of Pakistan have responded generously. Individuals have contributed.

It is not because they found the army lacking or the government lacking; it is because people wanted to help. And Pakistanis have responded very generously at the private level, and that is most welcome, but the army too has moved very fast.

As soon as we realized the extent of the disaster, the civilian government has been mobilized. We are doing all we can, and it is my view that it is necessary to function, to focus on what needs to be done rather than to focus on what should have been done.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me give you one last question about what should have been done. Does the country have a civil defense plan for a disaster like this one? It’s long been known that Pakistan sits on a fault line, a seismically active part of the world where earthquakes are a possibility.

MUNIR AKRAM: Yes, of course. We do have a civil defense plan. We have a civil defense organization. But it takes time to mobilize all resources and assets, and nobody planned for a quake of this magnitude, of this extent and the scope, which has been unheard of and has been unprecedented. We haven’t had something like this for 100 years.

I think the best of planning is required, but we have to now respond to the situation we face. It’s a desperate situation. Pakistan needs help, support and sympathy, rather than gratuitous criticism.

RAY SUAREZ: What kind of help do you need, and are you getting it?

MUNIR AKRAM: Well, we need, first of all, winterized tents, medicines, water purification and support in terms of access — that is helicopters. And we have been asking for that. The United Nations has issued a flash appeal for $272 million.

We have also appealed. And we are getting commitments from friendly governments. We hope that these will be acted upon as soon as possible and that the international community will mobilize to help Pakistan face this unprecedented disaster that has occurred in this part of the world.

RAY SUAREZ: What is middle October like in that mountainous region in the northern part of your country?

MUNIR AKRAM: Well, I think the days when there was sunshine, the days are variable. At night it gets very cold. As your program has reported, the first snows of the year have already fallen. There is rain and clouds sometimes making it even more difficult to reach inaccessible villages by air.

Therefore, it is — the climate also adds to the misery of the people and adds to the difficulties in getting to the people.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there now a system in place — you mentioned that it does take time to get these things in order, so that your government is aware of where need is greatest, where people haven’t yet gotten, for instance, medicine, liquids, food?

MUNIR AKRAM: I think we have established a national commission, which is coordinating our efforts. We have reconnoitered the territory and the area with the help of our friends. And we are now in a much better position to know where to go, but still it’s a question of capability. It’s a question of access and it’s a question of availability of all the necessary supplies that we need in terms of tents, of medicines, of food and other supplies that we need to get to the people.

We need to get those who may be injured out and into some medical treatment. So there is we are working round the clock without sleep, without let-up. And we need all the assistance and help from the international community that we can get.

RAY SUAREZ: This place in Asia, it’s a part of your country where several countries converge at one spot, but these are often neighbors with which Pakistan has had tense, even war-like relations. Is aid flowing across these international borders? Are the people of your country getting help from perhaps new and unusual sources?

MUNIR AKRAM: Well, I think we have good relations with all our neighbors except one — China, Afghanistan even, yes with India we’ve had difficult relations, although these are improving. India has offered help, and we have accepted it. And we are getting some supplies from India, as well as from other neighbors and from other members of the international community, particularly the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and other friends who are contributing, and we are most grateful for the support that has been extended by all our friends and all our neighbors.

RAY SUAREZ: In the case of aid from India, was it difficult to accept? Did ground rules have to be set in place before you could take aid from a country with such a tense border with yours?

MUNIR AKRAM: Well, of course there are sensitivities involved, but the prime minister of India phoned our president, and the president readily accepted the assistance, and it has been transported across the established points of our border, and that aid has come in, and we are grateful for that assistance.

RAY SUAREZ: Is private and nongovernmental organization aid coming from other parts of the world, and can people who make contributions be assured that there is now sort of an open flow and a governing intelligence so that the money gets where it’s needed and helps people who need help?

MUNIR AKRAM: I think that everything is open now. All the assistance that’s coming in, all the international presence is there. What we’re getting we’re trying to get to the people with the help of the international community and our friends. There is no question that the aid we get will not get to the people. It will get to the people. That’s what it’s meant for. This is a natural disaster for Pakistan, and we should. — we are acting with the best of our ability to try and meet the needs of our people and to ensure that their suffering can come to an end.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Munir Akram, thanks for being with us.

MUNIR AKRAM: Thank you.