Guns in the time of cholera – The Irrawaddy


After three suicide attacks in Pakistan during the past week, doing flood relief means dealing with insecurity as well as the threat of disease

This woman pictured at a Saudi-run camp at Abad, Sindh province (Simon Roughneen)

ON THE ROAD IN SINDH PROVINCE, PAKISTAN – The bridge leads out of Sukkur to the town of Larkana, a two-hour drive to the north-west and closer to the restive province of Balochistan, home of a long-running separatist movement and, more recently, al-Qaeda and the Tehrik-e-Taliban.

The turmoil caused by the monsoon floods has brought trouble to towns and cities that have been relatively calm and secure. Coming downhill over the ramp of the bridge, a crowd of around three hundred mainly men and boys were blocking half the road, fists raised and pointing toward whatever traffic came their way.

Too late to avoid the group, we swung off as some made less-than-hospitable gestures in our direction, taking the first right near the foot of the bridge. However that was not evasive action, it was the intended route, and the whole thing was over in a matter of seconds.

Later we heard that a group of around 2000 people had blocked the road. All were homeless after floods inundated their homes in southern Pakistan, and were voicing their anger at the slow relief effort. No violence was reported, but with word out about the group, traffic avoided the road until the evening.

This type of incident has been repeated across Pakistan since the floods first hit the country’s north almost 6 weeks ago. Anger at the country’s government and with individual politicians is rife, in Pakistani media reports, and in interviews with people affected by the disaster.

The country’s military, however, has at least been seen to be working, with neatly-arranged camps run by the Pakistani airforce sitting either side of the bridge where the angry crowd gathered. The army has the logistical capacity and manpower to be effective, in a way that the civilian government does not. It is another reminder of the power of the military in a country that has been ruled by the army for more than half of the time as an independent state, since 1947.

A Pew Research Center poll published before the floods showed eighty-four per cent of Pakistanis to be dissatisfied with the way things were going in their country, with inflation, terrorist bombings, and American drone strikes to blame. Three-quarters disapproved of the job being done by the country’s President, Asif Ali Zardari, who has since been shorn fof much his powers by constitutional amendment.

The Pakistan Peoples Party-led coalition has been in power only two years, and despite the the much-criticised relief effort, seems safe from any coup for now. The army may not want to be blamed for the hardships that now face the 20 million Pakistanis affected by the flood.

Some of the displaced are sleeping in the open (Simon Roughneen)

Burma became independent less than six months after Pakistan, and has been ruled by army since 1962. However, despite the longevity of military rule and the resources available to the army, the Tatmadaw was accused of indifference to the suffering, death and destruction wrought by Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

In contrast, in Pakistan, over 60,000 soldiers are now working as temporary aid workers with military helicopters ferrying supplies to millions of people who need shelter, water and food. Pakistani embassies around the world have been ordered to expedite visas for aid workers, in marked contrast to the situation in Bangkok in May 2008, when aid workers waited for weeks, without reply, after applying to enter Burma at the regime embassy in Thailand

Delivering aid in Pakistan is a risky business, much more so than in the Irrawaddy Delta. The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had to halt two flood relief distributions so far, due to rioting by people who were to receive the aid. As well as saying it will carry out bomb attacks in the US and Europe, the Pakistani Taliban has threatened foreign aid workers, who must plan their operations accordingly – often limiting the time available to work in the field and meaning that certain areas can be declared off-limits.

A wave of sectarian terrorist attacks since last Wednesday has killed 109 people in various locations across the country, signalling that the Pakistan Taliban is trying to capitalise on the disarray caused by the floods. The most recent hit the town Lakki Marwant, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa yesterday, killing 19 people.

However Islamists remain widely unpopular. In the last election, the religious party previously aligned with the Taliban polled two per cent.

The Pakistani military stands accused of playing a double game by the US, with the recent Wikileaks affair detailing that US officials believe elements in the country’s army and intelligence to be supporting militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

However, the Pakistani army has engaged in concerted military action against the Taliban and other militants, successes that could now be washed away by the floods. The US is continuing with drone strikes in these regions, such as North Waziristan, while the flood-affected regions are dotted with US Government-donated shelter material.

Militants such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed for the 2008 Mumbai hotel attacks, are working on flood relief, usually in the guise of front charities, as LeT is, by letter of the law, outlawed in Pakistan. The spirit of the law is another thing, however, with New Delhi believing the group to be working closely with Pakistani intelligence.

However the government in Islamabad has moved to close militant-linked relief efforts, hoping to stave off what some fear might result an upsurge in popularity for such groups. At the same time, accusations are being bandied around that politicians and officials are trying to guide relief to supporters and constituents.

Even as the floodwaters recede in the north, and in Punjab – the country’s breadbasket and and source for the bulk of the army’s elite – levees and dykes continue to be breached in Sindh, the southernmost province. This disaster is far from over. Cropland has been destroyed, the threat of disease, including cholera, is everywhere, food shortages loom, and over US$40billion damages have been inflicted on an already-brittle economy.

Floodwaters stretch to the horizon. (Simon Roughneen)

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