Thu. Jun 17th, 2021

Feature – The scars left by a disaster that could have been controlled

Scenes of destruction and despa

On 4th January 2010 a natural disaster occurred in Attabad, killing 19 people and making almost 1500 people homeless
On 4th January 2010 a natural disaster occurred in Attabad, killing 19 people and making almost 1500 people homeless. Photo: Ali Sarwar

Natural hazards have the potential to destroy years of hard work and investment within few seconds or minutes. If the impact of disaster caused by natural hazards prevail for longer periods, it can paralyze a region’s economy and push the development process backwards, rolling back decades of progress.

A similar situation developed in the upper areas of Hunza Valley, where a disastrous landslide on 4th January 2010 destroyed a large portion of the village of Attabad, buried areas located in the surroundings and caused the blockade of the Hunza River gorge. The Karakuram Highway was also destroyed, disconnecting the Gojal Valley, upper Hunza, from rest of the region.

The impact of the natural disaster is still unfolding due to bad planning and mismanagement
The impact of the natural disaster is still unfolding due to bad planning and gross mismanagement. Photo: Ali Sarwar

More than four and a half years have passed since that dreadful day, but the scars of the disaster are very powerfully exhibited across the valley, in the form of silted and torn patches of land, broken boats, partially visible walls of houses and Jamatkhanas, worried faces, tearful eyes, yes even now, and the haunting fear of an uncertain future.

Apart from causing the loss of precious life, inundation of land, destruction of houses and the loss of livelihood means, the Attabad landslide disaster also left deep marks, nay scars, on the politics, culture, values, economy, psychology and vital social fabrics of the directly and indirectly affected communities.

The disaster affected people had to face police brutality and political inaction, adding injury to the insult
The disaster affected people had to face police brutality and political inaction, adding injury to the insult. Photo: Ali Sarwar

Civic and political activism triggered by delays in draining of the dammed river, and the unbecoming government reaction, has enormously affected the region’s political culture and collective psyche. The bizarre reaction of the elected, democratic, government and the bureaucracy to the genuine, largely very peaceful, of the affected people has created a sense of victimization in the region.

Riots and protests had engulfed several parts of the Hunza Valley when two IDPs were shot at close range by the police in Aliabad. Several people were later booked under charges of terrorism and tried by an anti-terrorism court in Gilgit. At least four young activists were sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment, each, recently, but the police officials who killed the two IDPs are free.

The local people feel that the human-induced disasters caused by mismanagement and bad planning are more severe than the natural impacts
The local people feel that the human-induced disasters caused by mismanagement and bad planning are more severe than the natural impacts. Photo: Ali Sarwar

A prominent activist and progressive leader, Baba Jan, was arrested on the charges of terrorism, kept in jail for almost one year, and then freed! Two of his companions still languish in a jail in Gilgit. A young man, under immense pressure, committed suicide in Aliabad after he was indicted by police in cases related to terrorism and rioting.

The brutality and highhandedness of the police, coupled with the application of selective justice, have drastically changed the way the people in this part of the country looked at the government.

The government has done a lot of good work, like payment of compensation for the loss of life, houses and business, in addition to arranging provision of edible and non-edible relief items for the isolation population. Funds have also been made available for the students, the tales of corruption notwithstanding, of course. The government has also been making efforts to lower the level of water in the dammed river, with some success. Tunnels are also being constructed to realign the Karakuram Highway. There is a lot of hope for the future, apparently. But, despite of all these positive signs, the sense of deprivation and victim-hood reigns supreme across the disaster hit valley, some for the reasons for which have been narrated above.

Scenes of destruction and despa
Scenes of destruction and despair are proofs of the failures at different layers of government, NGOs and the civil society. Photo: Ali Sarwar

In conclusion, there is a general agreement among the people in the region that this huge disaster was, at best, mismanaged at the policy and execution level, which not only led to prolonging of the people’s sufferings and ultimately created a lot of social stress, but it also resulted in creation of new social and political issues.

The only brighter side to this episode of doom and destruction is that it has been thoroughly documented in the form of articles, reports, photographs, videos and audio recordings. If the relevant government and non-governmental organizations, and the citizens at large, are able to learn from the disaster and not repeat the mistakes elsewhere, it will be quite an achievement, or a blessing in disguise.

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