Monday, June 1, 2009

The Shame of Swat

One of the biggest exoduses of modern times is under way in Pakistan. Two and a half million people have been displaced - a dozen times the populaiton of Geneva, and yet we hear relativley little about their plight in this "little Switzerland". That might be changing, with major humanitarian organisations finally mobilising. 

The International Committee of the Red Cross yesterday gained access to Swat valley for the first time since hostilities began. Their team reported hospitals lacking the barest necessities - we're talking without water or electricity -  in an area where people are most likely receiving horrific injures, and suffering from food shortages and waterborne diseases. 

Nothing is getting in, not even the spoken word, as phone lines are down. Mingora has obviously been a scene of carnage. The footage coming out evokes Mogadishu, and the "theatre" must be as dangerous for the aid workers going in as it was in Somalia back in the early 90s. To them, chapeau, and sincerest wishes for their continued safety. 

HDEO doesn't want to get into the game of saying "when X happened in Y country" but it's terribly tempting to point out that people seem to be more worthwhile of our media's attention and outrage if they happen to live within an ass's roar of London, New York or Paris, or when markets, superpowers and resources are at stake. To say nothing of the prisms of colour and culture through which "victims" are screened. 

The mainstream press would do well to dig a little deeper into what is going on in the high mountains of South Central Asia, and their proprietors would do well to let journalists tell us more. The new "Great Game" is afoot, with some new and hungry players appearing. 

But you don't need to think global crisis to be moved by the current drama. In purely human terms this is as poignant a quote as any I have seen, from a father of nine called Abdulla, one of thousands of Abdulla's on the move: 

"I was afraid that my children would get killed. But I can tell you that when we were walking along the road and we arrived in Mardan district, all the inhabitants from Mardan were looking at us. I felt so ashamed that we had abandoned our land." 

That's a reaction you wouldn't expect, would you? A feeling of shame. But it comes up again and again. I've heard it from people who lost their farms to Chernobyl' s radiation, from fishermen who lost their islands to the 2004 tsunami. Shame. They feel shame that they left their homes, their animals, their books, their children's toys, their past and their future. 

We in our armchairs expect them to feel relief. They got away didn't they? Or gratitude. Look, the "international community" is providing them with relief. (After sales service, it has been called, but that's for another post). But no, they feel shame. THEY feel shame. Surely that's one emotion they can be spared right now. There's many others, much more powerful, who should be feeling it, but of course, never will. 

One ray of hope. On CNN last night a Pakistani student group, interviewed by webcam, talking about how they were bringing aid to the displaced. They put the emphasis on education, on reestablishing schools rather than letting extreme elements gain control in the huge camps that are springing up. 

Of course, food and shelter are essential. But so is some food for the mind, and HDEO supports these local thinkers, who are thinking far further ahead than the rest of us.


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