Pakistan: Unstable in more ways than one
IT HAD been a month of great gains for Pakistan.
The Prime Minister and his family went to the United States, they gathered millions of dollars in aid disbursements and they were bestowed with more fighter jets. There was the usual sparring with India, but the growing religious intolerance across the border made the already existing xenophobia at home a matter of relative repugnance.
And then, on the last Monday of October, there was disaster.
A neat 10 years after the devastating earthquake of 2005, a massive 7.5 magnitude earthquake hit the northern portion of the country. In a few minutes, over 228 were dead and over 1,000 were said to have been injured.
TV channels and newspapers that announced the death toll ominously added that the numbers were expected to rise. They need not have added that detail, numb audiences consuming fresh scenes of haplessness, rubble-strewn habitations, crushed bodies could easily tell. Many were dead and only some had been counted.
GRAVES OF IGNORANCE
In the aftermath of the earthquake, while areas around Malakand, which was the approximate epicentre, still shook with tremors, two sorts of experts were gathered at the country's numerous news channel studios.
One set, greater in number, dug new graves of ignorance for the still living.
The earthquake, they sagely said, had been a punishment for Pakistan. The many sins of the nation the cause of the shifting plates, the collapsing buildings, the dead children. Most in their audiences nodded in agreement; the watching are usually the still living, and the still living would like to imagine themselves as the better.
Pakistan's poorest, the inhabitants of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, were hence condemned a second time in a single day.
If nature had randomly chosen them as victims for its act of tectonic rearrangement, their countrymen imagined them as sinners, as somehow deserving of devastation.
It is not possible to die once in Pakistan, those that the quake had killed had to be hacked to pieces again by those who believe that suffering must and always is divine payment for some secret sin.
That they were some of the country's poorest was used as substantiation for this condemnation, the poor are unlucky, this the rich of Pakistan know, and their lack of luck could not be incidental, it must have been some deficiency in piety, which must be some consequence of poverty.
NO LESSONS LEARNT
The other set of experts gave bad news of a different kind.
None of the earnest discussions of 10 years ago, the plans for disaster relief, the institution or implementation of building codes, or the training of students and teachers in earthquake preparedness had taken place.
The aid dollars had come, some projects had been slapped together, disbursements made to this or that arm of the government or earnest non-governmental organisation, but there was nothing at all to show for it.
In simple terms, no lessons had been learnt. The evidence of this insistent lack of learning from experience could be seen in the details of disaster relief.
In the hours after the earthquake, Chitral, that lush and luscious dream destination for so much of the rest of Pakistan, was cut off from the rest of the country. Land routes to it were blocked by the rubble from avalanches in the mountains. The only way that the injured could be rescued was if they were airlifted.
There were many requiring this; people from the region shouted on mobile-phone lines to television channels broadcasting live. In turn, government officials insisted that helicopters had already been sent to the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
A cold night passed, and no helicopters descended into Chitral. The dead lay dead and their numbers increased. It was almost a day later when the Pakistan military came to the rescue, dispatching a C-130 with relief supplies to the still waiting in Chitral.
Fierce nationalists, and Pakistan has such an abundance of them, insist that the separate realms of defence and disaster do not intersect.
The country needs bombs and fighter jets, its fateful existence at the node of strategic interchanges where superpowers like to spar requires this, and they tell the nation.
If that is true, so is the fact that the fateful location of Pakistan atop one of the most unstable sets of tectonic plates also requires a commitment to disaster management.
The neglect of this second goal is visible in just how easily everything crumbled 10 years ago, crumbled yesterday, will crumble in the future.
The imbalance is both deadly and ironic, a "secure" country, that is not only metaphorically, but also literally unstable, shaking at the core, vulnerable to collapse.
DAWN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK