by Noor Muhammad
The worst happened on January 4 when the already cracked mountain located above a beautiful, tiny, hamlet called Attabad slid off and buried most of the village, along with the people who had chosen to live in it, its cattle, houses, fields and orchards. The land mass that slid off has completely blocked the Hunza River gorge. More than two kilometers of the gorge through which the river once flowed is now filled with sand and rocks over, turning the river into an expanding lake, posing great risk to the low-lying villages of Gojal Valley.
More than two and a half kilometers of the Karakuram Highway has been completely destroyed, disconnecting Gojal Valley from the rest of Hunza. This blockade has severe implications for life in Gojal valley, as the supply of food, medicines and other essentials is not likely to take place till complete opening of the road. The government will have to seriously work on air – supply of such essentials of life.
Attabad village had been declared high risk zone by the government and people had been asked to relocate to safer places. Many people had relocated to safer places but others did not, and so the tragic loss of life.
The government is partly responsible for the loss of human lives because while it warned the people to move to safer places, it did not plan an alternative living space for the one hundred and six families that lived in Attabad. Those who moved out of the village were forced to stay with their relatives in nearby towns. The government’s plan to build a tent village to relocate the people failed because Tapeline villages are highly unfeasible for places where the temperature drops down to negative 18 degrees on the Celsius scale.
Those who criticize the people for not leaving the village, despite of the eminent threat, ignore the fact that moving out of a settled place, abandoning the organic links with the soil, is not an ordinary phenomenon. Subsistence level farming supports life in most of the villages of Hunza valley and if the fields and orchards are left unattended, the result is great economic loss. What the government and other related agencies did not do was to provide an alternative system of economic opportunities, along with alternative, dignified, living space. It is unfortunate, scaling at the level of criminal negligence that the state relied only on giving warnings, instead of taking concrete steps to relocate and rehabilitate.
Thirteen dead bodies recovered from the debris of Attabad were laid to rest in Aliabad, Hunza, the other day, in presence of thousands of mourners. This could have been averted. The children, women and men killed in the tragedy, and those still missing, could have been saved, had the state shown more interest than it did. But the governments of Pakistan, which rule this region, have better things to do, like milking its poor citizens through taxes, so that millions of dollars are generated for the world tours of its president, prime minister, ministers, their relatives and the higher ups of civil and military establishment.
The entire process of rehabilitation and relocation would have taken lesser amount than the amount spent by the state on broadcasting and printing congratulatory or mourning messages, through state funds, to glorify this or that individual. But then, states have their own priorities!
The role of government after the disaster struck is even more pathetic. State machinery came to “rescue” the buried people on third day of the disaster. They should, better, have called it a dead body search mission. What is left to be rescued? The best thing the choppers could do was to transport the commuters who were stranded on both sides of the road blockade to their destinations.
Choppers, throwing dust in the air, don’t give comfort and relief. They reinforce the feelings of loss, of an opportunity bygone due to negligence. If the state could use so much of its resources after the tragedy, why not did it work seriously to rehabilitate residents of the village, while there was still time?
It is pertinent to note that the issue of cracks appearing in the mountain above Attabad, due to seismic activity, had been surveyed, researched, documented and reported two and a half years ago.
However, the state’s work has not ended, in any way. Announcing a few hundred thousand rupees as “compensation” for life of the dead and missing is not going to solve the issues. Far from it.
The state would, in the long run, have to generate resources to develop and execute a complete rehabilitation plan for the twelve hundred registered, alive, affectees of the Attabad village disaster. Moreover, the loss of property needs to be compensated to enable the survivors to start living again!
Immediately, however, the state needs to find a permanent solution to the threat produced by the conversion of Hunza River into a huge lake. Gojal is a valley under the siege of nature, having being closed at one end by a devastating landslide and on the other side, Khunjrav, by seasonal snowfall. Prolonging the siege would mean multiplying suffering of the valley’s twenty two thousand residents. It would not be far from reality to demand that Gojal valley be declared a calamity hit area and governed accordingly.
Towards the end, let me wholeheartedly appreciate the residents of Hunza valley, organized as they always are, for springing into action on the first day and working selflessly on the disaster site, since then. They have rescued many people, shifted the injured to hospitals, secured valuables buried under the debris and are untiringly working along with the NDMA personnel and other volunteers. The neighboring communities have also played inspiring role in the aftermath of the tragedy by contributing their energies and resources to provide relief to the survivors and victims.
The role of FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance, an affiliated institution of AKDN, is also highly appreciable because it trained, organized and equipped groups of local people to work in the times of disaster, enabling them to work on their own in a more organized manner. This is despite of the fact that the onus of governance and community empowerment primarily rests with the state and not the non – governmental organizations.
The writer is founding chief editor of Pamir Times.
Also published by Pakistan Desk, Pak Spectator, Ismaili Mail and Visit Hunza Blog.