Zulfiqar Ali Khan
It was 10 years ago when an upper portion of the Attabad village, along with an adjoining towering mountain, tumbled down and killed 19 people while rendering hundreds homeless and landless.
The second disaster ensued when the huge debris blocked the Hunza River, submerging Ayeenaabd, lower parts of Shishkat, Gulmit, Ghulkin and Hussaini, and resulted in complete destruction of over 20 km of the Karakoram Highway – that links Pakistan to China. This rendered thousands homeless, landless and stranded having no other alternative route. This incident also badly impacted the livelihood of the local community, cutting them off from markets and education and healthcare services in downstream areas.
Army helicopters were initially used to transport the stranded patients, students and others. The boat ferries were the only means of transportation for over five years and eight months.
Frontier Works Organization was tasked with making 24 meters of spillway in order to ensure early release of water and saving villages and strategic properties upstream. The lake quickly became over 22-km long and over 330ft deep and started overflowing by the end of May 2010. FWO also lost one of his officers, Col. Arif Mehmood, during the excavation process.
Following the submerging of the KKH, Pakistan’s trade with China decreased significantly. Only a small volume of trade continued through boats, having to cross over 25-km long Attabad lake.
Besides government agencies, different national and international organizations, especially Focus Humanitarian Assistance, AKRSP, USAID, PRCS, provided internally displaced persons (IDPs) relief and other assistance. The Chinese government also provided relief goods to the victims of the disaster as well as to the inhabitants of the bordering Gojal tehsil.
The local community staged protests against government’s inaction and not having provided adequate assistance to the affected areas. In an unfortunate event on 11th August 2011, police killed two protesting IDPs in Aliabad, Sher Afzal and his father Sher Ullah Baig, which triggered more protests and violence. This led to the arrest of hundreds of local youth. Fourteen youth, including the much-famed political activist Baba Jan, are still languishing in different jails of Gilgit-Baltistan. The government has still not made public the findings of the judicial commission report on the Aliabad incident.
On September 14, 2015 – five years and eight months after the Attabad disaster – the Karakorum Highway was restored with the opening of five tunnels and 24-km long portion of the realigned KKH. The realignment project costed over $275 million, and was completed in a span of three years and two months.
These Pak-China friendship tunnels have now become the symbol of Pak-China friendship and the much celebrated China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). CPEC was projected as a game changer for the entire region.
With the inauguration of the tunnels, the Attabad Lake started evolving as one of the most visited tourist attractions in Gilgit-Baltistan. Many small and big hotels started to spring up around the lake. The lake now offers boating, water sports and other recreational activities.
The government has developed a feasibility report to construct a 32.5 MW hydel power project at the spillway area of the Attabad lake.
The memories of the Attabad disaster may have started to fade, but its impact continues to be felt at large. There are events that still serve as reminders for victims’ families, making them recall all the horrible memories associated with that disaster.
The most important of all is the 14 local youth languishing in jails for the last 8 years with no sign of any immediate relief. The families of the youth have formed the Aseeran-e-Hunza Rihayi Committee to seek justice and highlight the miseries of the jailed youth.
There are still many affected families struggling to construct their houses, and start a new source of livelihood.
Many announcements and political promises were also made. Shahbaz Sharif, former chief minister Punjab, had announced Rs100m in aid for the victims and Rs0.5m for the relatives of those who had died in the landslide. However, the promise was never materialized. Despite efforts by the committee of the affected people, this and many other announcements, remained just a political gimmick.
There is a growing need for the federal and Gilgit-Baltistan governments, and the honourable courts, to consider the never-ending miseries of the jailed youth and ensure early justice.