Blocked Aid Causes Suffering for Pakistan Earthquake Victims

Written and reported by Abubakar Siddique, with additional reporting by RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal correspondent Khudai Noor Nasar in Quetta, Balochistan

Residents of the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan are still struggling to dig out of the rubble left by two recent major earthquakes in September. The central government, meanwhile, is being accused of dragging its feet in allowing international aid to reach the disaster zone.

Islamabad has been involved in an intense struggle to crush the separatist aims of the province's Baluch population. This has heightened the complications of providing relief following the quakes that hit on September 24 and 28, killing nearly 700 people and leaving some 1,000 injured.

The central government has maintained tight control over the relief effort amid the continuing insurgency and, with their safety in mind, has denied the involvement of outside aid agencies.

Local aid workers acknowledge that there have been some cases of insurgents attacking security forces following the disaster. But aid workers, they say, have not been targeted.

“We will not allow army or FC (paramilitary Frontier Corps) here, only NGOs or local officials are allowed to come here,” Balochistan National Movement’s Dr. Manan Baloch  told Agence France Presse (AFP).

In 2012, the International Committee of the Red Cross scaled down its operations in the country, including ending its activities in Balochistan, following the death of one of its staff members.

Only a small number of local organizations have ongoing operations in the province. One of them is the Pakistan Red Crescent Society, whose local network on the ground enabled it to be among the first responders in the quake’s aftermath.

Provincial officials have stated that international aid workers cannot be allowed in until their security can be ensured. Chief Minister Abdul Malik Baloch, the province's top elected official, has nevertheless written to Islamabad requesting that international aid agencies be allowed to participate in the relief effort. But weeks after the quakes, with government agencies were on leave to celebrate the Eid al-Adha holiday, Minister Baloch is still awaiting a reply.

Help Desperately Needed

Zahid Ali is a local aid worker participating in relief efforts in Awaran district, which is located at the epicenter of the September quakes. He paints a grim picture of utter destruction. He says that more than 90 percent of the traditional mud-brick houses in the region have collapsed and remaining ones have been damaged so badly that they are not usable.

He says that aid in the form of food, medicine, and tents has reached disaster-hit areas, but a lot of work remains to be done. "I request that international agencies, the United Nations in particular, come here quickly because the people need them urgently," Ali says. "We need their aid in the form of food items and non-food items. We need blankets because the winters are approaching. We require lots of daily-use utensils for cooking. Above all, we need a lot of medical assistance."

Ali says that Minister Baloch spent five days in Awaran following the earthquakes. At the time, Ali says, the chief minister pledged to push Islamabad to appeal to the United Nations for help.

Minister Baloch's spokesman, Jan Muhammad Bulaidi, accused the insurgents of hampering the delivery of aid to the very people they claim to be fighting for. "The separatists should curtail their activities in the aftermath of the disaster. They should allow aid workers and state agencies to help people," he said.

"The separatists need to change their attitude. They need to be aware of the problems of their people. They should allow aid organizations to go to the affected regions and help people," Bulaidi said. "Aid workers would go there only if they can be assured of their security by the authorities."

Agencies At The Ready

International aid organizations cite Islamabad's reluctance as the main hurdle to them reaching quake victims. Many aid workers, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that they are ready to go to Awaran as soon as they get a nod from Islamabad.

In particular, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is only awaiting a green light from Pakistani authorities. MSF was one of the first organizations to publically call on Islamabad to allow humanitarian access to Awaran. "It's crucial that the authorities allow impartial humanitarian assistance into the Awaran area in order to respond to any unmet needs," the international aid agency's operations manager, Chris Lockyear, said in an October press statement.

The magnitude 7.7 and 6.8 earthquakes that struck in late September left more than 100,000 people homeless and affected more than 300,000 people. In addition to Awaran, they jolted the nearby districts of Kech, Khuzdar, Kharan, Gwadar, Panjgur, and Chaghi.

These regions are a stronghold of Baluch separatists who have waged many violent insurgencies against Islamabad over the past six decades. Thousands of civilians and soldiers have died in the latest rebellion, which erupted after the 2006 killing of prominent Baluch politician Nawab Akbar Bugti. Many hard-line Baluch factions now claim to be fighting for a separate homeland.

Resource-rich Balochistan has experienced a few major earthquakes. In April, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake across the border in Iran killed at least 35 people in Balochistan. In 1935, a major quake killed 60,000 people.

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