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20,000 Dead in Pakistan Following Massive Earthquake, Officials Fear Final Toll Could Exceed 40,000

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At least 20,000 people have died in Pakistan and India in a massive earthquake Saturday. Hardest hit was the area around the Pakistani Kashmir capital of Muzaffarabad. It is believed to be the worst natural disaster in Pakistan’s history and officials fear the final death toll could exceed 40,000. We go to Lahore to speak with author and activist Tariq Ali and a Moeen Cheema, a professor of law and policy in Pakistan. [includes rush transcript]

Rescuers struggled to reach remote, mountainous areas two days after Pakistan’s worst-ever earthquake wiped out entire villages, buried roads in rubble and knocked out electricity and water supplies.

The official death toll stands at 20,000 but is widely expected to rise with some estimates putting the dead at double that. Aid agencies are saying more than 120,000 people are in urgent need of shelter and up to four million could be left homeless.

The 7.6 magnitude earthquake struck close to Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-administered Kashmir on Saturday morning. The tremor was felt as far away as Kabul and Delhi, but the main areas affected have been Kashmir and Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province.

Many towns appear to have been flattened and government aid has yet to arrive. Most of Muzaffarabad has been destroyed or severely damaged. The city’s cricket stadium is being used to house the homeless and tend to survivors. The rescue effort has been slowed by landslides which have wiped out roads and bridges, and a lack of helicopters to ferry in vital heavy lifting equipment. Anger started to build as help failed to arrive. In many places, people reportedly dug with their bare hands in an attempt to reach friends and relatives trapped in the rubble.

Many of the earthquake’s victims were schoolchildren, who had just begun classes when school buildings collapsed on top of them. Pakistan’s military spokesman Major General Shaukat told Agence France Presse: “It is a whole generation that has been lost in the worst affected areas.”

In the capital of Islamabad, as many as 150 students are still trapped in the wreckage of a school, but with no heavy equipment, rescuers have all but given up the search. In the town of Balakot, as many as 250 students are thought to be still trapped.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf appealed for international help and asked for tents, blankets, transport helicopters and medicine. The United States has offered eight military helicopters and said it was contributing $50 million dollars in aid. Many other countries across the world have offered financial help and practical support.

  • Moeen Cheema, professor of law and policy at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He is the head of the Adventure Society, an outdorr group that has travelled extensively throughout the region.
  • Tariq Ali, author and activist. He has written more than a dozen books on world history and politics, including “Bush in Babylon” and “The Clash of Fundamentalisms.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Pakistan to speak with Moeen Cheema, a Professor of Law and Policy at Lahore University of Management Sciences. He’s also head of the Adventure Society, an outdoor group that’s traveled extensively throughout the region, joining us on the line from Lahore. Welcome to Democracy Now!

MOEEN CHEEMA: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Hi. Can you tell us what you understand is the extent of this catastrophe?

MOEEN CHEEMA: Well, as you point out this your report, it is estimated to be enormous. They recently opened up the roads to Muzaffarabad, and I have just heard that they have opened up the road to Balakot, but that just is the tip of the iceberg because what is happening in the cities is becoming visible, but nobody has any idea what has happened in the more remote villages. Even in the best of times, I mean, these areas that we have been tracking through, there are very few jeep tracks. These are fairly inaccessible areas, and whole villages have apparently been wiped out because of landslides and mudslides. So it will be a few days, you know, before the true extent of the disaster is found out.

AMY GOODMAN: We are also joined on the line from Lahore by Tariq Ali. We usually speak to him in London, but he has traveled back to the place where he was born, Pakistan. Can you tell us what you have learned so far, Tariq?

TARIQ ALI: Well, I agree with what Moeen has just said. It is one of the most horrendous natural disasters to have hit this country. And, Amy, you know, people are really angry that — the government obviously is doing its best. One can’t say it isn’t, but its best is not good enough. And you have these great military machines both here and in neighboring Afghanistan, ready to make war, drop bombs whenever they have to with a vast fleet of helicopters. I mean, you know, what’s shocking is that people couldn’t be rescued from villages and remote places or Muzaffarabad and Balakot, as well, where the roads were cut off and the only way to reach them was by helicopter, and the country’s president, General Musharraf, was saying, “We don’t have enough helicopters,” but in neighboring Afghanistan there’s a whole fleet of bloody helicopters which could have been diverted to help people in need, rather than being used for purposes of war. And so, it’s just that when there’s an emergency, as we saw in New Orleans, people are — you know, military forces, good at repressing things, are pretty useless when it comes to helping people.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Tariq Ali, who has written the book, Bush in Babylon and The Clash of Fundamentalisms; Moeen Cheema, Professor of Law and Policy at Lahore University of Management Sciences. Professor Cheema, I understand you just had a major meeting of people at the university to figure out what to do. What are the plans? How can you help? And how far are you from ground zero?

MOEEN CHEEMA: Actually, we are based in the city of Lahore, so we are quite far, distance-wise, from where the disaster has struck. We just had a meeting at the university in order to coordinate some of the relief effort that has begun here. What has happened in Pakistan, I mean, it is heartening to see that there’s been major outpouring of sympathy, and people are wanting to contribute whichever way they can. Some of our students were actually wanting to go up to Balakot and that side to actually volunteer with the rescue effort.

But what we have come to realize and what has come through in some of the discussions is that, like many other countries, what happens is, after a major disaster, there’s an immediate relief effort. People donate money, they donate whatever goods are needed, but then over the long term, as soon as the disaster fades into the memory, which is very likely to happen in this area, because politically these are not very important areas. These are remote areas, and since civil society networks, information networks, news networks are not very well developed, especially because of the heavy military presences, especially in Azad Kashmir.

So what is likely to happen, we are afraid, is that in a little while, people will forget about it, and when it comes to the reconstruction phase, a lot of money will be pilfered, there will be corruption. And we’re trying to put in place some long-term assistance projects, as well as the immediate relief efforts, so that we could monitor some of the relief effort. We can monitor some of the reconstruction effort that takes place after a while.

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ali, can you talk about the significance of the area that has been so hard hit, and what is happening between the Indian and the Pakistani governments, certainly a flashpoint in relations between Pakistan and India, this Pakistan-administered area of Kashmir?

TARIQ ALI: Well, you know, this is a — you know, it is a flashpoint region, but both countries have been collaborating and trying to help each other which is, at least, one small mercy in this horrible situation. I mean, there’s also a report which has been published today that some, about four hundred Pakistani soldiers who were sitting in trenches on the Pakistani side of Kashmir, in readiness for any emergency with India, i.e. in war readiness. When the earthquake came, there was a big landslide, and four hundred soldiers just died. I mean, nothing could be done to help them. A total waste of life, both of the ordinary soldiery and of people.

Now, Moeen is absolutely right, and I would sort of re-emphasize that, that there is no real infrastructure in place, as far as the official government is concerned, to make sure that the money coming in is used for the purposes for which it is being sent, and ordinary people are fearful that lots of money that comes in will be going into the pockets of bureaucrats or people administering the funds and will never reach those who it is meant to reach.

But the region itself, both the northwest frontier — of course, is a region where there’s a lot of poverty, especially in the villages. It’s quite a strategically important region, given now the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. And the Kashmir region is important militarily because of the conflict with India. Mercifully that has been muted now, and there’s been a lot of negotiations and talks going on for several months.

So, but what it does prove is that the army was there in force, but could not do anything when it came to helping people. It is not a force which is trained, as we saw, even in New Orleans, when the big disaster hit the United States. Lots of soldiers who went were good at pointing guns, were not good at helping the poor people in that part of the world. And the same, we are now witnessing here. It is not that the ordinary soldiers don’t want to help. There is no real leadership coming from above.

And the other point which has to be made, Amy, that in Islamabad two giant towers, the Margalla Towers, probably modeled on the twin towers, so that every wretched country in the third world can have its own equivalent, have been hit and people are still trapped in there. And in a country like Pakistan, especially in earthquake zones, to build these giant skyscrapers just in order to mimic the United States is just completely crazy, and I wish to God they would stop doing it.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Tariq Ali and Moeen Cheema. They are both in Lahore. Professor Cheema, this issue of the area being this flashpoint, we have heard reports of Indian soldiers also helping in the area. Do you think this could change the politics of the region?

MOEEN CHEEMA: Well, I have heard comments to the effect that this could be, you know, quote/unquote, “an opportunity for both countries to come together in the face of this disaster,” but honestly, my personal assessment is that it is not likely to happen. This is a very highly militarized area. Historically, you know, even though Pakistan has made fairly tall claims about protecting and furthering the rights of self-determination of the Kashmiris, but ever since Kashmir has been — Azad Kashmir, as we call it — independent Kashmir has been part of Pakistan, very little has been done to develop the area. Very little has been done to improve the quality of the citizens’ lives. So, what is happening even now is if you — all the information that you are getting is from the military. You are not getting any information from the civil society sources. And I think there will be a lot of talk, but in terms of actual support and joint operations of any sort, I think that is not likely to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: And Tariq Ali, the Northwest Frontier Province, the area where Osama Bin Laden has reputed to be, what is the significance of this in this natural catastrophe, the worst in Pakistan’s history?

TARIQ ALI: Well, the Northwest Frontier Province, it’s — I mean, I was meant to be going to Peshawar this week to give a public lecture, but which has now been canceled because of this, and I’m still going to try and get as close as I can. But the — parts of the province have been hit. Balakot is a city which everyone is talking about and discussing, and this city, according to reports, has been virtually completely destroyed. It’s a city I used to know well in the old days. It’s an important route to the mountains. And this is sad. Peshawar itself has not been hit. There have been tremors there. Islamabad is the city which has been hurt the most and where they say the al Qaeda network is. I say “they say,” because no one knows. In the Waziristan region of the Northwest Frontier in the tribal districts, I’m told that the tremors there have been very slight indeed, so I don’t think that that will be affected. And Kabul, of course, has not been affected at all. So, I don’t think, Amy, that this is going to affect anything on that front. I mean, there are Pakistani troops in action in Waziristan, fighting there against supposed Al Qaeda units, and a number of Pakistani soldiers have been killed in these clashes. Whether this is just to show the United States that the army is active or whether there is really someone there is an open question. Nobody knows.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the issue of foreign aid, the U.S. has offered $50 million. How does that compare to the U.S. military aid that goes to Pakistan?

TARIQ ALI: Well, it’s just nothing. It is completely peanuts compared to the military aid that comes to this country. And this is always the case. Time and time again, we’ve seen this. When there are floods, when there are natural disasters, the amount of money made available for humanitarian relief is pisling compared to the billions which are poured into armies all over the world, and I think that this is being talked about now by ordinary people, saying, “Where does the money go?” Even the limited money which comes, where does it go? And why can’t more money be sent? And you know, I really hope, for what we need — I mean, everyone knows what we need now is a massive presence of surgeons and doctors, as well. I don’t think the United States is capable of supplying those, and I hope the Cubans who have a very vast supply of doctors and medical aid will get into the act. They have not so far. I don’t think they have any formal relations with Pakistan. But really, help is needed for the poor of this country. The rich always are fairly unaffected. But even when they are, they are the ones, like in New Orleans, who manage to survive and get away. It is the poor who suffer, and it is the poor who need the help of the world, and they need help, not just with food and blankets, but we also need doctors here, and we need them urgently.

MOEEN CHEEMA: If I may just add something.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cheema, last words.

MOEEN CHEEMA: It was reported in newspapers here that immediately after the disaster, the U.S. offered $100,000 in emergency aid, and that has caused a lot of — that has been the subject of ridicule in the national press, especially the opposition religious parties have made a big deal out of it, and even those eight Chinook helicopters that have been offered to Pakistan are fairly late in the coming because, as you know, after a disaster like an earthquake, it is the first 48 hours that are critical, and a lot of people — that has caused a lot of concern in Pakistan, regarding the sort of effort that we’ve received — help that we’ve received from the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting to see this in relation to — compared to the tsunami when the U.S. had also offered, well, just a very small amount of aid afterwards, and then after public outcry increased the amount. Scott McClellan the White House Press Secretary just saying the $50 million number after the first $100,000 offer. I want to thank you both for being with us, Tariq Ali, Bush in Babylon, speaking to us from Lahore, Pakistan, as is Moeen Cheema, Professor of Law and Policy at Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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