Kashmir: the politics of an earthquake

Jan McGirk
18 October 2005

The jihadi-led aid efforts after the cataclysmic Kashmir earthquake expose deep fractures in Pakistani politics, reports Jan McGirk.

They say that not even a single leaf on a tree can shake in Pakistan without the army and its dreaded intelligence service, the ISI, knowing about it. So when on the morning of 8 October 2005 a 7.6 magnitude earthquake, the most devastating in a century, collapsed buildings and triggered violent landsides that left nearly 3 million people homeless in Kashmir and the Northwest Frontier Province, Pakistanis were aghast that soldiers did not come immediately to their rescue.

Also by Jan McGirk in openDemocracy:

“Bambi vs Godzilla in Thailand” (April 2005)

“Bali’s message of dialogue” (August 2005)

“Bali’s agony, Thailand’s turmoil” (October 2005)

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Nearly a quarter of a million troops were already stationed in the area, to enforce a tentative ceasefire with Pakistan’s nuclear-armed neighbour, India, over claims to the disputed territory. After living under the military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf for six years, the victims expected a disciplined and professional relief effort to alleviate their suffering.

"Musharraf is a great man”, said Umar Khan, a baggage porter in Lahore who was wheeling medical supplies towards the airport customs counter on the evening of 9 October, just thirty-seven hours after the monster tremors ripped through the Himalayas. "He will get this job done, because he is not corrupt." Musharraf's pragmatism, which has spurred Pakistan's economic growth, had been widely admired in a society more accustomed to kleptocrats and their cronies. But then the earth moved.

It took days before the army would reach any stricken areas beyond the towns; while it dallied, tens of thousands of loved ones were smothered under the rubble and the injuries of survivors went septic. Without any shelter, vulnerable infants and elders contracted pneumonia when intermittent downpours soaked their bedding. In grief, people could only cling to one another for body heat as hail pelted down and thunderclaps heralded more aftershocks. Villagers grumbled that the army must be tending to its own casualties first and had abandoned its hapless civilians to the elements.

Pakistan announced that more than 400 of its military personnel died in the tremors. In addition, reports that the quake killed a hundred militants in training camps established near the line of control (LoC) separating Pakistani- and Indian-administered Kashmir have been circulating; the government has never acknowledged that such camps exist, even though India has since 1989 accused Pakistan of arming and supporting Islamic guerrillas and demanded the camps’ closure.

Other Kashmiris, displaced by shelling during two wars fought over the terrain, had been rehoused in squalid and cramped quarters which did not withstand the severe jolts. Faced with destruction on such a vast scale, Brigadier Sikander Javaid admitted that the army had to rely on survivors fit enough to walk down to their bases and inform them where aid was most needed. An estimated half-million quake victims are struggling to cope on their own.

"We tried to wave the helicopters down, but they refused to land here", complained Sumair Ahmed, a tailor, after an aerial assessment team had hovered in a helicopter over his village on the edge of the Kaghan valley. "Are we not also part of Pakistan?"

Now, eleven days afterwards, regional officials report a death toll of more than 79,000, and admit that 20% of the most remote villages are still cut off, in the upper valleys beyond the range of helicopters or pack mules. As well as destroying a 30,000 square-kilometre chunk of the Himalayas, the cataclysmic Kashmir earthquake has unearthed deep faultlines in the politics of Pakistan. General Musharraf went on television to apologise to the nation for unseemly delays, but irritatedly pointed out that his army was quicker off the mark than Washington's response to hurricane Katrina.

Particularly in the strategic but underdeveloped areas near the Indian frontier, Pakistan's civil service has been gutted under Musharraf's rule, and no detailed plans for a disaster response existed. When the earthquake severed landlines and radio communications and mobile-phone systems were unable to cope, military officers became utterly paralysed. They were slow to act because they were waiting for top-down orders that never came.

Samina Ahmed, Islamabad-based director of the International Crisis Group, observes: "In recent years there has been a disproportionate build-up of the army and a neglect of civilian concerns. The military lacks professional management skills. They are trained to fight wars. They can get boots on the ground but that's it."

The jihadi aid campaign

Meanwhile, long before the arrival of army regulars, international aid agencies, or emergency search and rescue teams, an alternative volunteer army was reporting for duty in the earthquake zone: the jihadis. Bearded young men converged on towns close to the epicentre, after threading their shiny white mini-vans or military vehicles through boulder-strewn roads. More trekked by foot across rockslides, carrying picks and shovels. Yahya Mujahid, a Muslim militant chief, said he ordered his guerrillas to put aside their Kalashnikov rifles and hired 100 mules so they could get relief supplies up to the heights and carry out the injured.

The efforts won accolades from anguished survivors. No one else was on the spot to help locals unearth the injured and administer first aid, shroud and bury their dead, or dish up dates and hot soup so they might break the Ramadan fast at dusk. These aidworkers appeared extremely organised. In Muzaffarabad, a garrison city and the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, a big banner was erected over a tarpaulin spread with prayer-mats and quilts. It identified the energetic do-gooders as Jammat-ud-Dawa. This group is known to be a spin-off of the banned religious militants, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and is widely seen as the fundraising and recruiting wing for Islamist warriors who cross into India.

Musharraf, under pressure from the Americans, outlawed Lashkar as a terrorist organisation in 2002 because of its links to al-Qaida. The name change has allowed Jammat-ud-Dawa to continue building its religious seminaries, to train preachers for mosques, and dispense medical care to the indigent. But will they be able to muster support and force their way onto the national political agenda?

There are parallels with Palestine and Egypt, where religious groups took up the initiative wherever the government fell short in its performance. Washington's financial crackdown on Islamic charities following the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11 means that donations from abroad have been languishing, collecting interest in western banks, before essential transfers could be made to help victims in Pakistan. Local Muslim charities did not face such restrictions.

Also on the Kashmir earthquake in openDemocracy:

Maruf Khwaja, “Pakistan’s mountain tsunami”

Michel Thieren, “Kashmir: brothers in aid”

The Muzaffarabad hospital sustained such severe structural damage from the quake that patients were shifted to the lawn before their wards could implode in the aftershocks and bury them alive.

Hassan Sharjeel, an architect, clawed at the debris of a ruined high school classroom and managed to free his 16-year-old niece, Hadia Pundit, from her desk in the front row after eleven hours. Lashkar-e-Taiba were the first ones there to help dig out her dead classmates, he pointed out. "I hate them", Sharjeel muttered, "but one must give credit where it is due. In our hour of need Lashkar were there."

A 14-year-old boy, freed by Lashkar-e-Taiba volunteers from under the wreckage of his collapsed hut after four days, learned that both his parents had perished in the earthquake. His saviours renamed him "Bobby", bundled him into a van and drove him to their fundamentalist madrasa outside Lahore. "He's ours", they told the neighbours, before pulling away.

Musharraf’s twin problems

Musharraf's military mindset blocked humanitarian aid from reaching the needy. He spurned an Indian offer of emergency-relief helicopters (which would have doubled the country's fleet) unless Delhi agreed that only Pakistanis pilot these loaned aircraft.

The demolition of most of the infrastructure that the armies have erected in the region since the British left in 1947 does not diminish generations of mistrust. The earthquake thus opens the prospect of India and Pakistan being reduced to fighting over ruins, while shifting the balance of advantage between them: Pakistan was much the harder hit, and can expect fewer peace concessions from an India whose hand the disaster has strengthened.

After the Indians lifted restrictions on mobile-phone calls to enable contact between earthquake-stricken families separated by the frontier, Musharraf proposed on 18 October allowing Kashmiri residents to cross the ceasefire line to help with reconstruction efforts. "We will allow every Kashmiri to come across the Line of Control and assist in the reconstruction effort", he said.

India immediately welcomed the move. "This is in line with India's advocacy of greater movement across the LoC for relief work and closer people-to-people contacts", enthused Navtej Sarna, an Indian foreign-ministry spokesman.

Musharraf's sudden announcement on television was seen as a bid to boost his popularity after the debacle of the army's earthquake relief efforts; the technicalities of allowing civilians to cross the line, while simultaneously preventing troop movements, will take time to work out.

Against all odds, the slow response to this killer earthquake has eroded the respect that the military once commanded in every strata of Pakistani society. As converts clamour to join the jihadis, the ground under General Musharraf's feet is shaking again.

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