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Reality and rhetoric of relief in Balochistan

21 Nov

The Balochistan province of Pakistan is prone to environmental hazards such as tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, heat waves, cold waves and droughts. A number of quite devastating calamities have hit the province in the recent past. Some of the ruinous events have been as follows: tsunami in 1945; floods in 1950, 1973, 1976, 1977, 1992, 2000, 2010, 2011 and 2012; cyclone in 2007; and drought in 2000. Some of these, e.g. the 1935 Earthquake and the 1945 Tsunami, were phenomenally devastating.

On September 24, 2013, Awaran district of Balochistan was hit by an earthquake measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale with five aftershocks on September 28. Awaran district is home to nearly 300,000 people. Of them, some 125,000 were affected by the earthquake. According to the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority’s (ERRA) estimates, 375 persons were killed and 825 got injured and about 25,000 houses were destroyed. With just about 3.3 % of its total land under cultivation, Awaran is one of the most underdeveloped districts of Balochistan. Awaran district makes a lopsided triangle on the map between three important highways: the RCD Highway, the Coastal Highway, and the (projected) Motorway (M-8). With 12 hours of travelling time, Karachi is the closest city from Awaran.

CM #Balochistan and mil Commande consult earthquake affectees on progress of ongoing relief rehab work

CM Balochistan and mil Commander consult earthquake affectees on progress of ongoing relief rehab work

Like earlier such calamities, Pakistan Army, along with the Frontier Corps (FC), promptly acted as asked for by the government.

An aerial view of dropping relief goods in earthquake affected area of Awaran Balochistan by the C-130 of PAF

An aerial view of dropping relief goods in earthquake affected area of Awaran Balochistan by the C-130 of PAF

Even though the FC components located in the area were themselves struck by the earthquake as much as was the civilian population, yet they were the first ones to respond to the situation. The Army units were moved from Khuzdar and Karachi. Initially, the Army and FC troops distributed their own rations (about 500 tons), tents, blankets, sleeping bags, mattresses, bed sheets, clothing, cooking utensils, bathroom items such as buckets, medicines, and other commodities of common use. Later, collection points were established in Karachi, Quetta, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

The relief work continued even during the Eid days. About 2,500 Army personnel and 1,000 FC personnel are part of the relief efforts.

Pakistan army ladies Officer helping Baloch earthquake victim

Pakistan army ladies Officer helping Baloch earthquake victim

The Army has a good interface with the provincial government, the ERRA, National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA), and Pakistan Air Force (PAF). By the end of the Eid holidays,

24 relief sorties of C-130 and 240 helicopter sorties had flown, completing over 526 flying hours. The Army has established a field hospital in Awaran and six mobile medical camps at far-flung localities. Over 8,000 local patients have been treated, 7,000 tons of food items delivered and 37,000 tents have been distributed by the Army besides thousands of school books, stationery items and sports gear.

This makes a colossal relief effort spread over an area of 182 kilometres. As a matter of fact, Pakistan Army has transformed into an impressive and inspiring nation-building force, which remains on call of the nation for defence against external threats, security against internal threats, and human security against non-traditional threats including the environmental disaster from Attabad Lake and Gayari in Gilgit-Baltistan to floods in Thatta and Badin, and earthquake in Awaran district.

An earthquake survivor undergoes tests at a hospital in Karachi

An earthquake survivor undergoes tests at a hospital in Karachi

 

Sadly, the relief effort has been politicised and even “militarised” – all to the disadvantage of the affected populace. The militants, their collaborators, and the hostile countries and agencies have started fervidly opposing the relief activities by the Army and FC, both through a war of words and a war of weapons. The militants repeatedly attacked the security forces personnel during relief work. During 20 such attacks, six security forces personnel embraced ‘shahadat’ and 12 were seriously injured.

As for information narrative of the militants and their collaborators, a number of news items, op-eds, social media feeds and media interviews bear testimony to the fact. The threads of the militants’ narrative, though a mix of falsity and half-truths, are as follows: (1) The Army is conducting military operation against the militants; (2) The Army is gathering information about the militant organizations from the residents of Awaran; (3) The Army will stay in the area for a long time; (4) Relief efforts of the other organizations, especially the militant organizations, are being obstructed; (4) The government is not allowing the foreign NGOs and relief organizations.

On the other hand, the government upholds that not even a single soldier is operationally deployed in Balochistan. DG ISPR, in a statement on October 20, said that there was “no military operation in Awaran and Mushke as being propagated by miscreants.” He further stated that the security forces were busy in relief activity only.

Why then the noble acts and activities are being opposed, and the relief workers being attacked with rockets, machine-guns and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) by the militants, can be analyzed from many angles.

First, the “no-go area” created and held as such by the militants in Awaran district, wherein the state had virtually lost its writ, seems to have been “penetrated” by the state. This has certainly fractured the narrative of militants’ control and clout over the poor Awaranites, and coercion of the district administration.

Second, the rescue and relief efforts by the Army and FC seem to have zero-sum effects in view of the militants’ pursuits and agenda. While it induces goodwill for the state security forces, the militants lose their appeal and influence over the locals. Whereas the security forces acted to rescue the Awaranites, the militants rather coerced them to rebuff the relief offers and efforts by the state.

Third, the militants fear that the Army could gather sufficient information about them. They also fear that after completing the relief work the Army might start operation against them in collaboration with the locals. This mix of fear and scepticism has led them and their collaborators to start crying foul before that the foul actually occurs.

Fourth, the issue of access to foreign NGOs in Awaran district has two important angles: (1)Under the circumstances when the Pakistani security forces engaged in relief work are “insecure” in the face of militants’ attacks, who would ensure or guarantee the security of foreign NGOs?. What if someone of them is kidnapped? The episode of John Solecki’s abduction for ransom by the Balochistan Liberation United Front (BLUF) on February 2, 2009 (eventually released on April

4, 2009) is still fresh; and (2) in the aftermath of 2005 Earthquake in Pakistan and Azad Kashmir, a host of foreign NGOs were given access to the affected areas. What was the consequence? Some recently published books, e.g. The Command: Deep Inside the President’s Secret Army by Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady, and The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth by Mark Mazzeetti, and several articles published in such sources as The Telegraph and Foreign Policy have revealed that Raymond Davis like CIA’s secret agents were pushed into Pakistan posing as the aid and construction workers in 2005. What if it recurs in Balochistan, which has already turned into an important square on the geo-strategic chessboard of South Asia? Bear in mind the Indian ingress in Afghanistan as a case in point. India is working on 84 different projects of socio-economic significance in Afghanistan, but all have covert military and intelligence presence for strategic pursuits.

Chief of Army Staff talks to Pakistan Army Medical Corps officials during his visit in Awaran

Chief of Army Staff talks to Pakistan Army Medical Corps officials during his visit in Awaran

Epistemologically speaking, the militants’ narrative is out of justification and has encountered evidential setback before that it could make some semblance of truth, and thus knowledge. Therefore it is of paramount importance for all segments of the state and society to prefer the humanitarian issues over the parochial interests. The reality of devastation in Awaran is more important than petty rhetoric, sloganeering and blame game.

The writer is a PhD (Peace and Conflict Studies) scholar and author of Human Security in Pakistan (published 2013) Email: ehsanmkhan@yahoo.com

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