By Sajjad Shaukat
We always remember the innumerable contributions of the Pakistan’s Armed Forces in disaster management—their services and sacrifices, as noted in relation to the military operations again the terrorists—resettlement of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), floods, desilting of canals (Bhal Safai) etc, entailing restoration of law and order on many occasions. In the recent past, Armed Forces were in the frontline for people-salvage from areas of earthquake which hit Balochistan. During any natural calamity, the personnel of the Armed Forces coped with situation boldly.
In this respect, 8th October reminds the tragedy which Pakistan faced due the earthquake in 2005 and Pakistan’s Armed Forces again rose to the occasion to meet the aftermath courageously by contributing to the relief efforts.
At 8:50 a.m. local time, a magnitude Mw 7.6, the most powerful earthquake struck the Himalayan region of northern Pakistan and Kashmir. The earthquake epicenter was located approximately 9 km. north northeast of the city of Muzaffarabad, the capital of the Pakistani-administered part of Kashmir, known as Azad Jammu Kashmir (AJK). The main focus of death and destruction targeted northern Pakistan in a wide swath from Peshawar to Azad Kashmir.
Media attention riveted the first morning on rescue efforts directed at the two collapsed blocks of “Margalla Towers” in Islamabad’s posh F-10 sector, diverting attention from the massive human and material devastation in Azad Kashmir, Kaghan and Kohistan valleys till hours later. With electricity and telephones lines down reports about a greater disaster in the mountains came in patches, eg 30% houses collapsed in Mansehra, 60% in Muzaffarabad, 80% in Rawalakot and Balakot etc, entire villages perched on the hillsides disappearing in mudslides. In the next 24 hours 40 aftershocks (of which only 17-18 were perceptible) added to the panic.
The Pakistani government’s official death toll as of November 2005 stood at 87,350, although it is estimated that the death toll could reach over 100,000. Approximately 38,000 were injured and over 3.5 million rendered homeless. According to government figures, 19,000 children died in the earthquake, most of them in widespread collapses of school buildings. The earthquake affected more than 500,000 families. In addition, approximately 250,000 farm animals died due to collapse of stone barns, and more than 500,000 large animals required immediate shelter from the harsh winter.
It is estimated that more than 780,000 buildings were either destroyed or damaged beyond repair, and many more were rendered unusable for extended periods of time. Out of these, approximately 17,000 school buildings and most major hospitals close to the epicenter were destroyed or severely dam-aged. Lifelines were adversely affected, especially the numerous vital roads and highways which were closed by landslides and bridge failures. Several areas remained cut off via land routes even three months after the main event. Power, water supply, and telecommunication services were down for varying lengths of time, although in most areas services were restored within a few weeks.
Massive landsliding was a particular feature of this event. A very dense, high-frequency band of landslides was triggered along the fault rupture trace in the midslope areas; however, it quickly dissipated with distance away from the fault rupture zone. Almost all landslides were shallow, disaggregated slides, with two of them larger than 0.1 km2. Due to the generally arid landscape, liquefaction was not observed or reported by others.
However, it was the most powerful earthquake to hit this region in 100 years. The critical Karokoram Highway (KKH) remains blocked due to landslides in many places along its entire 600 kms length. So is the main road to Muzaffarabad. Nevertheless, some alternate roads had been cleared; evacuating casualties to nearest hospitals and providing supplies was almost totally dependent upon helicopters.
Limited by numbers in coping with the magnitude of the devastation, Army Aviation helicopters did magnificent work, keeping the relief momentum going. Pakistan’s MI-8s and MI-17s were not enough to cope with such a catastrophe. My heart goes out for the helicopter crews. Chopper flying in such conditions takes its toll. The wear and tear on the helicopter and crews monitored closely, they pushed themselves beyond normal endurance limits. But, I say this with pride that in the face of this catastrophe our “eagles” did not listen and I salute them for their unmatched services in relation to the relief operations.
In this context, the then Maj-Gen Shaukat Sultan, Director General (DG) Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) initially confirmed 18000 dead and over 41000 injured. With villages perched precariously on sides of the mountains, and the timing (about 9 am) during Ramazan, one feared that this would be revised upwards many times over, it could well be beyond 60000 dead, a mind-boggling 90000 to 100000, even more. Almost all my company employees (security and courier personnel) from Azad Kashmir, Kaghan and Kohistan valleys lost some loved ones.
Pakistan Army paid immediate attention to disaster relief and to restore basic services of electricity, water etc. No government can really plan for the worst. The first few days were always chaotic and haphazard. President Gen. Pervez Musharraf led from the front, showing the way by visiting nearly all disaster areas and many hospitals.
Although Pakistan’s civil authorities, NGOs, foreign entities, the US and other countries’ role is appreciable regarding provision of medical treatment, other basic needs to the affected persons of the earthquake, yet credit goes to Pak Army which played major role in this respect.
In this regard, a permanent “Crisis Management Agency” was established under the Chairman Joint Services Committee (CJSC) for effective coordination of ground, air and naval resources in support of the effort of the civil administration. In order to address the post-disaster issues—taking note that people would be without food and shelter, their children would be without schools, continuing medical care would be needed and rehabilitation thereof, etc. The short, medium and long-term economic consequences and remedial measures thereof had to be worked out, as each disaster has different dynamics.
First or all, the personnel of the Armed Forces proved the pre-position supplies, particularly potable water, meals ready to eat (MRE), medical requisites, blankets, tents etc. They included containerized field ambulance-medical units with doctors and medicines.
Besides, the problem of road closures was so significant that the Army dedicated 12 engineer battalions to open roads. Owing to the Army’s extensive experience with road building, and the availability of skilled builders in the mountain communities after many years of building the Karakoram Highway, the opening and reconstruction of roads was handled efficiently. At the time of the reconnaissance, the Jhelum ValleyRoad, the Kaghan Valley Road, and the Karakuram Highway had been cleared and opened. The Neelum Valley Road, the only other major road in the affected area, had only a 5-km stretch remaining to be cleared. While most major roads had been reopened, there is a vast network of tertiary roads serving the mountain community in the higher elevations. Many of these roads remain closed, cutting off populations which did not even experience the direct effects of the earthquake and hampering relief efforts.
And several bridges were damaged, especially within the Jhelum Valley and in Balakot. Personnel of the Pak Army repaired the bridges.
Nonetheless, on this very day, Pakistanis salute to their Armed Forces due to their unmatched contribution to the relief efforts in connection with the earthquake of 2005.