Saturday, November 12, 2005

Feeling Useless

It should be certainly not be news to anybody that last month there was a terrible earthquake in Pakistani Kashmir. Tens of thousands were killed and millions were left homeless. Now I'm no saint and I have no pertinent qualifications, but I was thinking that, with the few days I have whilst I'm waiting for my Indian visa, I could perhaps help out with some grunt work, lugging boxes and the like. I had a few contacts and so off I went to Mansehra, where most of the TLA NGOs (Three Letter Acronym Non-Governmental Organisations, because every NGO that wants to seriously do some good must first have a catchy acronym) are based. First I went to a field hospital run by the Italian Red Cross, where a friend of mine had been doing precisely what I wanted to do just a week earlier. But in the meantime there had been a change in political leadership and they were no longer receptive to volunteers. From there I was sent to the WHO, from there to the WFP, then on to UNHCR, then MSF, MDM and IRC (not to be confused with the ICRC). None of them had any work for me, which perhaps wasn't so surprising, but worst of all, none of them could give me a list of other NGOs working in the area or the name of someone who could give me such a list. There seemed to be no coordination whatsoever amongst the organisations. The UN agencies were probably the worst in that respect; none of the people I talked to amongst them seemed to have any idea what was going on and many were fresh off the plane. Although I'd heard such things from other people during my travels, I didn't expect it to be so bad. That's not to say that the organisations are not doing a good job, but it just seems rather haphazard.

What impressed me most, however, was the people of the area. Despite having lost their homes, their livelihoods and many members of their families, the legendary Pakistani hospitality was as strong as ever. I actually felt very embarrassed that these people, who were forced to live in tents, were giving me food and shelter when I had come to help them. This is one side of Pakistan that you definitely don't hear about in the media. I have been offered tea and food and shaken more hands in my one week here than in my whole time in the rest of Asia. Sometimes it can be a bit much and people continually come up to me wanting to know my life story: "what country are you belonging to? are you a Muslim? what is your profession? what are your qualifications? are you married?" and so on and so on, hardly pausing to hear my replies, before wandering off. But it's all innocent and fun, and I amuse myself by varying my nationality to see the different responses they illicit (my current favourite is Mexican).

After one and a half days of being passed from one NGO to another and calling various phantom phone numbers, I decided take the hint and leave rather than get in people's way. Perhaps I could have been more forceful in my inquiries, but then again I didn't want to be some morbid disaster tourist. If you would like to help out then there are a plethora of agencies that are doing good work to help the affected, such as the ever-present MSF that I'm sure would accept donations.

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