Monday, October 17, 2005

A note on what we’ve been up to so far

Haven’t been in Islamabad that much so blog postings pretty sparse so far. Will now attempt to update more regularly.

When we first arrived we tried immediately to figure out how we could most effectively contribute to the relief efforts. Having spent the day before we left the UK contacting as many people/organisations as were willing to listen, we arrived armed with a list of contact names, telephone numbers, appointments, and the few thousand pounds we had raised from family. We were met at the airport by TH, a friend from the UK who happened to be in Pakistan at the time of the quake, in a Hiace van we had arranged to hire.

We went straight into the first of several meetings that day with NGOs and individuals involved in relief efforts. By the end of the day we’d decided there was an issue with distributing the considerable aid already collected, with a substantial amount of aid bottlenecked in Islamabad. There was already a shortage of transport vehicles in Islamabad – we used ZA’s contacts in Mirpur (a part of Azad Kashmir largely unaffected by the quake) to get hold of a few more Hiace vans, including two which had been converted to ambulances. These were a convenient size as larger vehicles were having trouble getting through the still damaged roads. In addition to the vehicles, between us we had some knowledge of the areas affected which we felt would be of use, since the NGOs involved are mostly manned by Islamabad-based staff.

We spent the next few days making delivery runs with our vehicles, transporting aid piled up with Islamabad NGOs supplemented by goods purchased with the funds we’d brought. We visited between us Muzaffarabad, Bagh, Poonch, and drove up the KKH past Abbotabad & Mansehra to just short of Balakot. With the large NGOs focussed on the major population centres, we looked for smaller settlements where we’d heard there was severe need of aid. Information on such villages trickled in from all sorts of sources – requests for aid made to NGOs, as well as through friends who’d been contacted by people they knew in the area.

Where possible we transported injured people back to Islamabad in our ambulances, which could be used to take relief goods up on their outward journey. A friend of ours called to tell us of a woman who’d damaged her backbone/ spinal column and broken/ paralysed both legs. A relative had got her to a hospital in Abbotabad, but she urgently needed an operation which was unavailable there. One of our ambulances picked her up and brought her back to Rawalpindi, where she was operated on the same night. Our friend had arranged for a surgeon, and separately for a hospital space (both in short supply). Fortunately the operation was successful. We realised that our friend had never met the injured woman; he had just had a phone call from a friend of his asking if he could help. We later realised just how common such acts were. Stunned by the unprecedented scale of the disaster, the entire country was hugely mobilised to help the victims. Otherwise notoriously fractured, it is unfortunate it takes this to bring the Pakistani populace together.

Over the next few days we continued these delivery runs, and our activities evolved as we got a better feel for what was happening on the ground. We bought a satellite phone and could now communicate with Islamabad from the affected areas – this made it possible to do things like visit field hospitals, find out exactly what the needed, and communicate these requests immediately back to Islamabad, where we arranged for the goods to be procured and dispatched. Without this, it would take these hospitals perhaps 10 hours to get this information back to Islamabad, and that too when they found someone travelling to Islamabad or if they despatched someone themselves.

The visit to one field hospital remains particularly vivid. It was on the edge of Bagh town, which lay beyond a bridge which fortunately survived. It was evening when we arrived, and we stopped at the hospital before entering the town. The hospital consisted of a few tents, and part of a surviving college building. Supplies of food were piled to one side, under a makeshift shelter erected to protect them from the elements. The workers looked weary. The injured/displaced filled the tents.

The operating theatre was on the second floor of the college building. A huge crack ran through the walls and floor, no-one would have been allowed near this building in England. Two amputations were being carried out simultaneously, one of a hand, the other of a leg. The injuries looked horrific. The surgeons explained that amputations were now the most common operation, as five days after the quake most wounds had turned gangrenous. They were desperately short of anaesthetics, and also asked for strong antibiotics and some surgical instruments/sterilising equipment.

I asked one of the camp supervisors what conditions were like in the town itself. As with the other volunteers there, he appeared exhausted from several days of work with little rest. He looked at me for a minute: ‘you must be new here’, his gaze seemed to say, then replied, “Beta, wahan zindagi nahi hai“. Son, there’s no life there.

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Another tremor. This one shook me a little, though it only lasted a couple of seconds. I’d just lain down to sleep – on the floor, so I felt even the slight movement. This is the second I’ve felt since I’ve been here, the last one a couple of days ago, was also very minor.

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Issues

During our first few days we identified the following as key problems that were hampering relief efforts:

-Dispersed population - the majority of the affected population lay in remote, outlying areas, and was hugely dispersed across small villages
-Difficulty of access - Access was difficult even to the population centres, and severely difficult to some of the worst affected rural areas
-Lack of communication – landlines were down in most of the affected areas, and the majority of them had never had never had mobile access – the few that did were largely damaged.
-Lack of coordination – there was a lack of coordination of effort between the various parties attempting to provide aid. These included civil administration/army, international relief agencies, local NGOs and individual citizens.
-The result of the above was a failure to provide appropriate aid to the right places, in the right quantities, in a properly prioritised manner.

2 Comments:

At 7:43 AM, Anonymous skarim said...

M -

Thanks for the update, it's awesome that you guys are m'A helping the way you are; please do continue keeping us posted!

p.s. Please do let me know if you end up working with any specific NGO.

-S.

 
At 3:17 PM, Anonymous s hadi said...

salaams, keep it up keep it up keep it up. laanath on me for being utterly useless. our prayers are with you - how on earth will you be able to leave on sunday.. -b

 

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