The Challenge of Balakot

Along with a group of faculty, staff and students from my university in Islamabad, I journeyed to Balakot, close to the center of the Kashmir earthquake. This mountainous town, situated on the banks of the Kunhar River, has been destroyed. There is rubble and the gut-wrenching smell of decaying corpses. The rats have it good; the one I accidentally stepped upon was already fat. If there is a plan to clear the concrete rubble in and around the town, nobody seems to have any clue. But the Balakotis are taking it in their stride – nose masks are everywhere.

But there is good news. We were just one of countless groups of ordinary citizens that were on the move after the enormity of the earthquake became apparent. The Mansehra to Balakot road, finally forced open by huge army bulldozers, is now lined with relief trucks bursting with supplies that were donated by people from across the country. This is one of those rare times that I have seen Pakistan’s people feel and move together as a nation. Even the armed bandits who waylay relief supplies – making necessary a guard of soldiers with automatic weapons, standing every few hundred yards – cannot destroy this moment.

Islamic groups from across the country have also arrived.  Some bring relief supplies; others simply harangue those who have lost loved ones and livelihoods, lecturing that their misdeeds brought about this catastrophe. None seem to have an explanation for why God’s wrath was especially directed to mosques, madrassas, and schools – all of which collapsed in huge numbers. None say why thousands of the faithful have been buried alive in this sacred month of fasting.

Aid from across the world is making its way towards the destruction, and the US is here too. Double bladed Chinook helicopters, diverted from fighting Al-Qaida in Afghanistan, now fly over the heartland of jihad and the militant training camps in Mansehra to drop food and tents a few miles beyond. Temporarily birds of peace instead of war, they do immensely more to calm angry Islamists than the reams of glossy propaganda put out by the US information services in Pakistan.