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I wanted to share my trip to Muzaffarabad with you all. The purpose is not to brag that I have been there and done that. The one and only purpose behind sharing my story is that you all get to know, from someone like you, what is happening at this very moment while we sit in our air-conditioned offices thinking how the time will pass till iftar, what we will have for iftar and what we will do afterwards.
I, as part of a group of 12 people went to Islamabad on Friday morning to volunteer in the relief efforts to help the earthquake victims. We all had a few concerns before we left for the trip. We were asking ourselves whether we would be of any help, how possibly we could be of any help, how would we help, where would we help, which NGO should we volunteer to, so on and so forth. In the end we just decided to go there and find out for ourselves. We ended up at the HQ of Sungi, which we had heard was the most organized of all the NGOs and which was doing the best work. When we got to their office it was total chaos, no one was in charge and there was total utter lack of communication. We went and offered our services wherever needed, one person told us to go to Mansehra, the other told us that there was no need in Mansehra and that we should go to Balakot and yet another person came and told us that there were enough volunteers in Balakot and that we should go to Rawalakot. So in the end we had to talk to a dozen people to assess the situation and then decide on our own where we should go to help. What we did was send an advance team to Abbotabad on Friday evening while we waited for the rest of the team to join us in Islamabad. When a part of our team reached Abbotabad we were told that a lot of help was needed in Muzaffarabad so we decided that that was where we should go.
From Islamabad to Abbotabad and from there to Muzaffarabad took us approximately 7 hours because we had to take a longer, safer route. Till Abbotabad the effects of the earthquake were not visible as such. In abbotabad we visited the Ayub Medical College complex which was our first glimpse of the tragedy unfolding even as I write this email. There was blood everywhere, screams coming from children who were being amputated, wounded sitting on the footpaths with nowhere to go. This was nothing compared to what we were about to see in Muzaffarabad. We started seeing the real destruction and chaos that the earthquake has caused. Driving through villages that we had never heard of, Garhi Habibullah and Balakot etc., we could not see a single structure standing. All we could see were men, women and children waiting by the roadsides for help which was not coming fast enough. We did not see any relief efforts, any NGO camps, any government workers, any army workers till we reached the outskirts of Muzaffarabad. We had been told that we would need to wear surgical masks because the stench of death would be bad. Didn't believe them then but it turned out to be true. Shattered houses, the stench of death and the homeless everywhere is what greeted us in the capital of Azad Kashmir.
We drove around asking everyone where we should go to help out especially keeping in mind that we had two doctors with us and lots and lots of medicine. Finally we arrived at Neelum ground, which was being used as a helipad base by the army to carry out the relief efforts. It was a terrifying scene. There were wounded everywhere, helicopters landing and taking off every few minutes and people running all over the place. There were also people just sitting around watching the helicopters and doing nothing more. We went into the TCF camp and asked the in charge, Adnan, if any help was needed. He grabbed all of us and gave us a briefing right there on the spot, telling us what help was needed and how we could fit in. He told us that volunteers were needed by the hundreds and they were needed for at least 7 to 10 days. This freaked most of us out because we had just planned to help out for a couple of days and then get back to our normal lives. After a lot of discussion it was decided that we would help out the best we could and some of us would stay while the rest went back. We started off by some of us putting up a medical tent, the others helping out in the operating theater, while others managed the patients in the Pre Op and Post Op. Patients were streaming in, not just into our camp but in every camp setup in Muzaffarabad. We saw close up, limbs being amputated, kids in shock, grown men and women crying for shelter and food. It was just really, really terrible. We helped out at the camp for two days the best we could and now some of us are back in Karachi to organize the relief that we think is most needed while some of us stayed back to help out for a few days more.
In my opinion and from what I saw, I have come to the following conclusions.
The government is doing almost nothing to help in the relief effort. I guess with the busy meeting schedules that the entire government has these days its hard for them to do much else. I did not see a single cent out of the billions of dollars, from Abbotabad to Muzaffarabad, that the government has received in PRIVATE donations being used in the relief effort. There was one government official who visited the relief camps on Sunday morning and distributing 1000 rupee notes at HIS OWN discretion and at the most he must have distributed a 100,000 Rupees. There were helicopters being used to ferry government officials (or atleast people with enough contacts) to Islamabad (of course that may be deemed as relief effort by the government). People told us that almost the entire government of Azad Kashmir had left the moment it was possible for them to get out of Muzaffarabad. People told us that the Prime Minister of AJK came down from Islamabad on Sunday morning to inspect his residence and then went back to the safety of our Capital city. On Monday morning, the heli-base was extraordinarily more organized, cleaner, crisper and brimming with generals (and their butlers, chauffeurs, body guards and so on and so forth). We asked around and were told that Maharaja Shaukat Aziz was flying up from his palatial Prime Ministers Secretariat to hold a victim in his arms and get photographs taken to gather more and more aid for God knows what!
The Army. Our rulers. Our Benefactors. Our lords. I would not say that the army is doing nothing but I will say that it is doing not even 30% of what they could be doing. From what I could see they were far too busy orchestrating a media campaign (much like Wag the Dog) to portray an image of the earthquake most suitable to them. Foreigners, local press, and people with influence were allowed to enter the grounds but people crying and begging outside for shelter and food were stopped by MPs at the gates. They were told that the generals down to the majors were far too busy to entertain them. This scene was made even crueler by the fact that the victims could see areas of the grounds where heaps of relief goods (including tents and warm clothes) were clearly visible to them. I stopped a colonel whom I had gotten to know in the previous 24 hours and asked him why these people were not being helped. His reply was and I quote 'If we start giving tents and other relief to these people we would not have any left for the remote areas where they were needed the most. We have been strictly ordered from the top not to give out anything!' On one hand you hear that and then on television you hear them they say that they can't reach the remote areas due to bad weather, etc. So who gets the relief goods then? It was so sad to see that the army was not willing to help the people who had walked injured for days to get to help and at the same time it is (supposedly) not able to help the people that need it the most in remote areas. The relief goods that our flowing into the effected areas are being held hostage just like our country also is by these heartless dictators. The army is busy facilitating and controlling the foreign press as well as the foreign rescue and relief teams. The army is letting them see and work in areas that the army wants them to be in and no other. We saw approximately 8-10 helicopters working over the period of two days. Those helicopters were predominantly being used to ferry journalists and television crews back and forth so that the world could see what the army wanted them to see and the government could get the aid that it needs to feed their insatiable appetites. I am not saying that those helicopters were not bringing in victims, they were. Maybe 4 sorties out of 10 were for this purpose but not more.
The NGOs are doing the best that they can. Private NGOs like Sungi, TCF, etc. are doing a lot but most of them have no organization whatsoever (TCF being an exception from what I have seen). Political parties are doing all they can to ensure that they have as many sympathy votes as they can. Camps of parties like MQM and PPP could be seen all over the place but they were there mostly for political reasons and not for aid reasons. One could tell that was their main purpose by looking at the political slogans all over the place. The camps were full of workers who should have been out in the fields and were bereft of relief goods that had been replaced by posters and loudspeakers. The members of national assembly, provincial assemblies, politicians as well as some relief organizations are concentrating on areas that are dear to them for ulterior motives of course. Sadly, the worst hit areas are not important to anyone because they are of no consequence to anyone. Who cares about villages that are so remote that one has to walk for two days under normal circumstances? Nobody!
In my opinion the following is needed on a war footing.
We need to get shelter, warm clothes, blankets, food and most of all medical assistance to the remotest parts of Pakistan before it becomes too late. We need to improvise, come up with ideas that will help us provide shelter to people who cannot be reached by roads. The government and the army informs us every hour that they have x number of tents available for immediate relief. What they fail to mention is that these tents, when packed, are approximately 7 feet long and weigh at least 40 pounds making them impossible to be transported to the remote areas. We need tents that are of the lightest material, weather proof, can fit in a big shopping bag so that they can be dropped in the remotest areas where people are dying by the minute. I met people whose villages were between 5 and 15 kilometers from Muzaffarabad who had received any help of any sort. Their children were dying of hunger and the cold. Their homes had been destroyed and now they were being turned back from Muzaffarabad with no help, just empty promises. One man told us that the population of his village which was around 15,000 had been reduced to a couple of thousand and those too were dying because of no relief, no shelter and no food. One man came in carrying his 4 year old daughter with a broken arm. They had walked for two days to get to the clinic. They had not eaten or drank anything in that time and the daughter was in total shock not being able to utter a single word. One man was brought in and his leg was amputated right in front of us. He had lost his wife and 4 kids and now he had lost his leg. Don't you think he must have been asking himself why he had been left alive? Medical Specialists. Now there is hardly any use for general physicians because the victims are not suffering from cough and cold. Now is the most urgent need for orthopedic surgeons so that limbs can be amputated before the owners of those limbs die of gangrene. Neurosurgeons are needed so that brain injuries don't turn into brain deaths. Pediatricians and Psychiatrists are needed so that the children can be given some hope for the future. We need Mobile Clinics so that victims who are too injured to travel down to the big cities can be helped. We need experienced doctors who would be willing to go to the remotest areas, if they are not willing to volunteer then we should hire them and take them there at any cost! People, if we don't help the people who are dying right now, there won't be any NEED for RECONSTRUCTION!
We need money. So that these people have funds to survive the cold. These people have the will to live and the will to do what they must to survive but they don't have the means. They are traveling for days on foot to get to major cities and help themselves but they don't have the money to buy food, shelter, etc. and take these things back to their villages. We gave a tent to an elderly man who was atleast 70 years old. This tent was the kind that weighs 40+ pounds. This aged man heaved the tent on his back and started walking to his village. The journey was supposed to take him two days on foot. It makes me happy to think that at least his family must have a roof over their heads as I write this email.
We need volunteers. Doesn't matter what your skills are. Doesn't matter how busy you are. Doesn't matter how spoilt you are. Those people need you! Even if you can take out one weekend of your life then please go up there. Treat it as a road trip, a camping trip or whatever else that you fancy but go there. Those people need to see that we care. Even if you go there and just sit with a few families and talk to them for a couple of hours. That will at least show them that we are there for them. If you can't afford or can't carry too much luggage, just take one sweater and give it to just one of the victims and you will have done some good. If you there is more humanity and concern inside you then go to one of the NGOs and help them in one of their camps. Go to the TCF office here in Karachi, they need volunteers by the hundred! Forget winter vacations in London and Paris. Our country needs us like it has never needed us before. It is a war zone out there and if we don't do something right now, it will haunt us some day in the future.
We need transportation. The government cries and moans that they don't have enough helicopters. I bet if they give an ad in every major newspaper in the world that they are willing to hire any and all helicopters available anywhere in the world, there will be a hundred helicopters landing at Islamabad airport tomorrow! Everything is for hire and so are helicopters and pilots. If the government is not willing to help it's people then we should do whatever we have to do to do things on our own. I know of a group of people in Dubai who had rented a helicopter, loaded it with relief goods and sent it to the remote areas and made drops there themselves! Why can't others do it? If a new years charity ball can raise millions of rupees because we want to have some fun, I am sure we can raise a lot more if we want to sincerely help.
My email has become too long. I apologize for taking so much of your time but I hope that I have made things a bit clearer for you all. Those people need us right now, this very minute otherwise it will be too late. There are people dying every minute of every hour of every day! Please help!
We didn't do much while we were there except for properly organizing the TCF camp there and helping out with a few patients etc. When we were leaving the people there were insisting us to stay back. We asked them what good will us staying back do when we are not specialized doctors, when we don't have the RIGHT relief goods to distribute and when we are not brave enough to climb up the mountains to help the really needy. They said that's true but at least you brought some life back into this place, helped a few people and made others smile. If you think you cannot do much else then please at least go there and spread a few smiles.
I plan to go there again in the next week to ten days. This time I will be better organized and better prepared. You all are most welcome to join me or help me as best as you guys can.