Saturday, November 19, 2005

Kashmir: The End of the World, Part III

/ catastrophes / biblical /
Matt Taibbi reports from Muzzafarabad in Pakistani Kashmir (BBC images from the ravaged city), on the harsh realities of a catastrophe that makes the Tsunami disaster look manageable by comparison. Excerpt:

"...The age of the International War on Terror seems to have turned itself into an unusually grim time in world history, an era of awesome and unforeseeable catastrophes, giant steps backward in the journey of civilization, ruinous and far-reaching political blunders and violently disillusioning confrontations with man's limitations. Even the most godless among us has to tremble before the biblical scale of the past twelve months' headlines: the tsunami that swallowed south Asia, the deadly lady named Katrina (also known as America Not Immune) and now this. We do not seem to be going forward very much, but every few months we lose, somewhere, a big piece of the world map, a mysterious and enervating process that is becoming like an ominously steady drip that can be heard all over the planet.

And this, the massive earthquake that rocked Kashmir on October 8th, is the worst by far of the troika. It is a calamity the dimensions of which the world so far has completely failed to appreciate or understand. Coupled with the geopolitical nature of the misfortune -- testing the nerve of two antsy nuclear antagonists and the political health of a somewhat notorious but also critically important American ally regime -- the continuing disaster known as the Kashmiri earthquake threatens to be a world-shaping event as important as the Iraq War itself...

...the quake left behind 3 million utterly impoverished people to live in tents -- in tents if they're lucky, under the stars if they're not -- in a region where heavy snowfall and severe winters are the norm. Aid organizations that exist to deal with these sorts of situations recognized the danger immediately and began a desperate drive to at least get tents to as many people as possible before winter made aid operations impossible.

They called it the "window of opportunity," this month or so between the quake and the expected onset of winter, and for the international aid community it would be their Normandy, the toughest single emergency rescue operation in history. Like Normandy, the success or failure of Operation Window of Opportunity would hang on the first crucial weeks. Unlike Normandy, most insiders agreed that anything like success was unlikely at best."

For more background and excellent reporting see Steve Call's "Letter from Kashmir" in the New Yorker. It contains this precious detail, highly indicative of the Pakistani government's priorities:

...The United Nations warned that thousands of earthquake survivors could die from exposure if relief did not reach them before winter, yet, ten days after the earthquake struck, Musharraf'’s government signed a billion-dollar contract for Swedish military surveillance aircraft, a bewildering priority. The Friday Times, one of Pakistan's leading newspapers, suggested in a front-page editorial that Musharraf's insistence on heavy defense spending might explain the slow pace of donations to the U.N. for earthquake relief: "“If you were a Westerner asked to provide humanitarian financial assistance to a country led by a military government obsessed with the regional '‘military balance,'’ what would you think?"” A week later, Musharraf announced that he would postpone buying American-made F-16 fighter jets, at least until the financial pressures of earthquake relief had eased...

You will not find the mandatory "optimism" and "resilient" angle in Taibbi's piece, unlike the more mainstream reports. As far as results go, I feel that only when faced with the utter magnitude and helplessness of the situation can the richer nations be expected to chip-in in an underfunded effort, despite reaching the "targeted" amount (some of it in low interest loans). It's a rather obvious observation, but the catastrophe in India, Pakistan and Kashmir, by not affecting Western tourists or providing the opportunity for impressive disaster videos and images (like the Tsunami disaster) or by not having some good circumstantial political usefulness (like Darfur), is bound to remain, if not invisible, then an "unimportant" catastrophe. If the extent of the relief contributions are mostly determined by the magnitude of the media coverage and the political uses of natural and man-made catastrophes, then the slow and unspectacular death of potentially tens (or hundreds) of thousands of human beings is the inescapable consequence of such media-driven philanthropy. This should serve as a reminder that, albeit very useful, private donations rarely match the funds that are (much less should be) contributed by governments, nor are they always directed to the aeas of most urgent need. Which in turn should be stressed in the current climate of diminishing first world budgets for all kinds of aid.

Finally, this sad piece of news seems symbolic of the disaster and its aftermath, while if you want to see how extremely conservative patriarchal traditions are threatening to cost lives - possibly under the encouragement of local landlords...

1 comment:

Renegade Eye said...

It is an issue of racism. That is what you're saying, only I put it in different words.

I put a link to your site at: