By and large one felt a sense of unity among the populace, cutting across their political and social divides, to face this big challenge

From KHALID BUTT, Lahore
 Oct 17 - 23, 2005

Pakistan comprises largely of regions considered highly vulnerable to earthquakes. One had grown up reading of the great tragedy which befell Quetta in the 30s and the havoc it wreaked, both in terms of loss of life and property. But that was all before our time. Only a memory of the gory event which had flattened one of the most beautiful cities of the subcontinent in a matter of seconds. Quetta was completely rebuilt afterwards, but still bears the marks of that happening. Like Quetta Railway Station, which displays a plaque of the Railway employees who lost their lives in the tragedy, many other institutions have put up remembrance plaques.

One has learnt to gradually overcome the shocks and tremors felt after each such event, like the large-scale deaths and destruction in Swat in the Bhutto era.

However, the intensity and impact of Oct 8 tremors shook the entire nation. As I was laying in bed seeing the walls shaking, along with a large painting hanging opposite my bed, I felt like transfixed through repeated tremors. Only when I came out some time later, I found my two granddaughters along with their parents sitting outside in the lawn. They had all rushed out in panic unlike me. But we were all oblivious to the full extent of the tragedy which had hit large areas including capital Islamabad, and other cities, towns, villages and hamlets across Punjab, NWFP, Northern Areas, Azad Kashmir and beyond. 72 hours later, as I write this the complete picture of what has been the country's worst-ever earthquake is still not clear. From the initial estimates of over 1000, the number of casualties at the latest count are being put at well over 40,000, and the number is still growing. Apart from Islamabad and Lahore, which suffered losses, places like Balakot, Bagh and Muzaffarabad have been flattened whose exact losses are still a matter of conjecture. People in many inaccessible areas in Northern Areas and Azad Kashmir are still awaiting outside for rescue and relief aid to reach them.

While both President and Prime Minister were quick to respond, the overall official machinery especially at the local and provincial level appeared to be lagging.

Most political parties, notably the opposition, have geared up their relief efforts in a big way, as have some other voluntary organizations headed by Edhi and Burney. But sadly two glaring examples are those of the leader of ruling PML and the head of government of the largest province, both are out on a foreign tour once again at this critical juncture. One thought they should have taken the first flight back home on learning of the tragedy and perhaps also cut down on their frequent foreign trips especially when their party is in a total disarray.

By and large one felt a sense of unity among the populace, cutting across their political and social divides, to face this big challenge. One was also impressed with the instant response by some media organisations and private channels to join the relief effort. This was sure sign of maturity. So is the wide response from local people and overseas Pakistanis. But what about the crisis management cells of the government, civic bodies and other national organisations? They all failed to rise to the occasion or prove their readiness for the task. While we tackle the present situation, this obvious failing is perhaps for future correction.

The spontaneity of public response in Lahore and other areas of Punjab has been somewhat reminiscent of earlier days notably during Indo-Pak war of 1965. From young school children to senior citizens, women groups, NGOs, social and voluntary organisations, all joined the massive relief work. Notable in this regard, apart from all political parties, were artists, journalists and sportsmen.

Singer Shahida Mini led a group of noted local artistes for collecting funds in Lahore for the quake victims. She was accompanied by Laila, John Rambo, Moamir Rana, Dress Designer BG, as well as several stage artistes Sohail Ahmad, Sardar Kamal, and many other radio, TV and stage artistes, to show a rare solidarity seen in recent times. Sportsmen have also not lagged behind and are actively involved in the relief operation as also the sports federations and leading sporting clubs.

Lahore Press Club has been the focal point of a major initiative taken by journalists in Lahore. So is the most visible campaign by leading media organisations.

Nawa-i-Waqt group took a major initiative by launching a Rs 10 million relief fund along with voluntary contribution of its employees. Several truckloads of relief goods were being sent on daily basis by them. A notable NGO, Aurat Foundation, had also taken a major and timely initiative in this relief work and undertook to handle it all on its own through their vast countrywide network.

Virtually the whole of city from the fashionable Mall Road to crowded Mozang and Ichhra and uptown areas like Defence and Model Town was bristling with round-the-clock relief activity showing a most welcome sense of national unity cutting across the social, communal and political divides. The way young children joined the effort donating their entire savings and pocket-money said it all. In this hour of crisis the revival of this rare spirit was perhaps the most singular national gain.