There is no denying that our country is in the grips of one of the worst humanitarian crises the world has ever seen. Given the past year and the rapidly escalating trust deficit between the Pakistani people and their government, this year’s floods pose a particularly pressing challenge for us all.
“There has been so much talk about how the response isn’t as strong as it was back in 2005 with the earthquake, but what people fail to recall is what happened with the aid that overflowed from all parts of the country for the survivors,” says Nauman, a volunteer at a Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) donation camp on The Mall. “We gave a lot back then and most of it didn’t reach the people it was intended for. With this government the public isn’t even willing to chance it,” he said.
That isn’t to suggest that people are not helping out – far from it. There have been many reports suggesting that our former empathy has now given way to collective apathy, but Captain Ahsan, volunteering at the army relief camp in Cantt, says such allegations are an insult to those working day and night for their countrymen.
“People are giving a lot but we need to be clear on what items are most required and where they are needed most. I am not boasting but so far the army and Edhi camps are the only ones that have seen some real turnout,” he said, adding that an average of 25-35 people visited the Cantt camps daily.
“There are several people who drop by almost every day. They bring small bags of sugar and dried fruit but we appreciate them the most. We’ve begun thinking of them as our regulars,” he said with a wry smile.
Ahsan said that the politicians had dilly-dallied for far too long and it was about time they officially handed over flood operations to the army. “This isn’t about power struggles, this is what the army does. The people trust that their shipments will reach the flood victims safely when they are delivered by us,” he said.
Captain Shaukat Nisar tells me that the army is operating on a rotation basis. “We have divided the aid into zones and every relief camp tends to one zone, then we rotate. About 15 fully armed jawans take the shipment, distribute the goods and help with rescue efforts. They switch every two days,” he said. Once in Rajanpur, he and his colleagues formed a “human net” amid the gushing waves. “We grabbed each other’s arms and started catching children and old men as the waters swept them away. Nearly eighteen hours of standing in that water,” he recalled.
Effort has not just been seen at the camps. Young volunteers continue their fundraising operations on the streets and major stores in Lahore. LUMS graduates have been collecting funds outside Al-Fatah, on the Liberty roundabout and in other parts of the city. “We are doing our best but people are wary. They ask us where we are going, about security arrangements and whether we are personally delivering the items,” said volunteer Najia, adding that most people she knew were taking relief goods themselves or giving them to the army and Edhi camps.
Relief camps set up by political parties have generally seen a low turnout, with the PTI camps reportedly pulling in the most numbers. “Young people are donating here. We have actually seen the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) camp right next to ours (in Model Town) come in the morning and set up with supplies to make it look as if people are contributing,” said Sahrjeel, a volunteer at the PTI camp. “Still, this isn’t a competition. All we care about is the fact that people actually get these things. I suppose people are donating with us because we haven’t had the chance to fail them yet,” he said.
Overall, we have a choice on our hands. As 82-year-old Edhi relief worker Qamar said “We can let those who are drowning drown or we can help them stay afloat. The time for half measures and talk is over now. People like you, educated and able, need to come forward and there may not be another chance to do it.”
Sadly, these floods aren’t a disaster with a time limit. With approximately one-third of our country under water, we all need to give something. If nothing else we can all take the first step by merely clearing out our rooms of all the things we don’t need but think others might.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 23rd, 2010.
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