I never thought I’d write this, at least not so soon after the news event, but I’ve just come through a story harder to cover than the southeast Asia Tsunami we reported on earlier this year. I’m talking about the recent earthquake in southwest Asia, Kashmir and elsewhere.
It's harder for a couple of reasons :
First, simple logistics: The tsunami cleared away vast swathes of cities and country along flat coastal areas of Indonesia and elsewhere. For us, it was mostly a matter of driving over to the wasted zones and trudging our way to the story.
The south Asia quake hit some of the most rugged terrain in the world, the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains in northern Pakistan. Simply to get to the affected areas my cameraman Barnaby Mackew (another Tsunami veteran), producer Maryam Sepehri and local staff had to drive for hours and hours through narrow ravines and over tall precipices on roads clogged with relief vehicles, trucks, motorcycles, private cars, you name it.
To get to Balakot for example, one of the hardest hit towns, from the Pakistan capital of Islamabad, it usually is a three to four hour drive. For us, during the post-quake time, it took something like 14 hours.
Then, when we got to the town, with everything either flattened or ready to fall down with the next aftershock, we camped out, amid the rubble, refuse, and remains of what was once a basic but civilized place. The nights were getting cool when we were there. We ate, of course, whatever we brought along, living mostly on tuna in packages and cup-a-noodles!
This, of course, was only a small slice of the hardship the citizens of this impacted area have to endure. But it certainly drove their plight home for all of us.
The other thing that makes this disaster a real challenge is the sheer human suffering we encountered. Even after the toll is tallied, the tsunami will no doubt have killed many more people, but that was the “9/11” of natural disasters. People were killed fast and furiously, hit by the quake and/or swept away by the ferocious wall of water. But injuries were less of the story.
In the Kashmir earthquake, the possible slow death of survivors was just as important as the immediate deaths. We spent day after day visiting clinics, hospitals, and open disaster zones seeing the terrible injuries. We witnessed broken arms and legs, concussions, amputations, and festering wounds. Many of the poor little kids you just wanted to scoop up in your arms and take to a warm, safe, and healthy place. It was the badly built government schools that seemed to collapse faster than anything else.
With the towns often so isolated and remote, many times it would take days before wounds were attended to, just making matters worse. Doctors I spoke with said they’d never been through anything like it.
Which leads me to the similarities of covering these disasters. And there are two important ones:
First, the simple durability of these people. The citizens of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, especially, have already had to endure a lot. Their land and neighboring India-controlled Kashmir region have been the subject of an intense tug-of-war between Pakistan and India. Real combat and guerrilla war, as well as neglect by the home countries have victimized these people. And then came the earthquake.
All of this, much like the stoic people we spent time with in tsunami-hit Indonesian Aceh province or Sri Lanka, both are scenes of on-going geopolitical battles, again complete with full combat, guerilla war and national disregard.
In Pakistan there were a lot of reports about civil disorder and people attacking aid convoys. I certainly saw a lot of impatience with the slow pace of the delivery of supplies. Even, at least one time, when quake victims had to be beaten away from aid trucks.
But for the most part I saw people making do with what little they had. Building lean-tos from bits and pieces of scrap to provide whatever shelter they could come up with. Cooking meals on open camp fires. Creating small household scenes in front of shattered houses. And not complaining a whole lot. Even when Mother Nature whacked them senseless…out of nowhere.
Another similarity, international help. It’s not coming fast enough for the U.N.’s (or anyone’s) liking. But along with British, French, German, Turkish and other teams, the Americans were there.
Now, even more so than in Indonesia, the folks of predominately Muslim Pakistan don’t like us a whole lot. In fact, there are some areas where it’s very very dangerous to be an American (reporter or otherwise). Still, I never felt in harm’s way. From the people I’ve been talking to, the effect of dozens of much needed helicopters ferrying in aid and flying out injured manned by American pilots and other diligent troops, was very positive.
America’s involvement in the Tsunami relief efforts had a definite effect on Indonesian attitudes towards the U.S. That was important in such a strategic Muslim country. With Pakistan playing maybe an even more important role in the current war on terror, both as an ally and a battlefield, warming the locals up to what the U.S. is all about can only help.
As is the case with most stories, even the big ones, one feels you never stay long enough. But no one does. For our last set of live shots in front of the collapsed Margala Towers apartment building in Islambad, we were the only network there. A few days before, it seemed the entire world media corps was present.
On the last day, as were getting ready to leave, we learned the death toll in just one effected area had jumped from 2,000 to 37,000. With winter closing in, more hardships have been projected.
Still, the U.S. had been rocked before by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and just now is girding for Wilma. Mother Nature is an equal opportunity destroyer. And yes, there can be a sort of disaster fatigue setting in. But it’s hard to forget the looks on the faces of the little kids who lost everything but still were happy to play in the dust of their surroundings.
And it's hard to forget the look on the face of the principal of one girls schools in Bagh who said she would not leave the site of her collapsed building until all the students’ bodies were removed from the wreckage. Dozens were still buried under the rubble. Families were still coming. Wiping tears from her eyes she said she didn’t think she’d be able to start again. Hundreds of thousands are getting the energy to do just that. I wish them luck.