Powerful earthquake in Pakistan hits home for Seattle man

A man walks through the rubble of collapsed houses in Awaran, Pakistan, where two earthquakes struck last week. (Photo courtesy Hina Baloch)

Crucial earthquake relief efforts in a long-neglected region of Pakistan have been hampered by internal politics and a lack of international media interest.

“Will there be any more earthquakes?” asks Zahid Ali’s mother on the phone from southwestern Pakistan.

Ali, 21, is a new transplant to Seattle from Pakistan’s Balochistan region. Last week an earthquake turned his ancestral home in Awaran district to a pile of debris.

More than 515 people lost their lives in the 7.7-magnitude earthquake. Another 300,000 were affected. The epicenter was Ali’s hometown of Awaran district, 130 miles northwest of the port city Karachi. The quake was so powerful that it created a small island off the country’s coast in the Arabian Sea.

Tremors were felt in many parts of Pakistan and across the border in the Indian capital New Delhi as well as in some Persian Gulf countries. My own hometown bordering Iran in the southwest was a mere 90 miles west of the epicenter, but thankfully, the quake left only a few damaged houses with no reports of casualties there.

But in Ali’s hometown, the quake left a trail of destruction.

“My family lost all it had, which now lies under the rubble of the house,” says Ali.

His 40-year old uncle sustained injuries when his room collapsed in on him.

Awaran is a remote town and is one of the poorest areas in Pakistan, severely affected by a recent drought. People live in mud-brick houses plastered with clay and straw with roofs supported by heavy trunks of date palm trees.

“The earthquake destroyed them all,” says Ali.

According to some news reports, more than 90 percent of the houses in the area collapsed.

“It took me days to get hold of my family,” says Ali.

His phone rings as we talk in a cafe in the University District. “This is from home and I need to take it.”

On Saturday, a new 6.8 earthquake hit the area again, leaving another 22 dead. The new quake augmented fears of more devastation.

My mother thinks since I am in the U.S., I might get some advanced warnings of earthquakes,” Ali tells me after getting of the phone with his mother. He’s the most educated member of his family.

Relief supplies are delivered to earthquake victims in Awaran. Pakistan's military is coordinating relief efforts but international relief organizations have not been allowed to provide direct aid. (Photo courtesy Hina Baloch)
Relief supplies are delivered to earthquake victims in Awaran. Pakistan’s military is coordinating relief efforts but international relief organizations have not been allowed to provide direct aid. (Photo courtesy Hina Baloch)

Like Ali, several members of Baloch diaspora in the U.S. have been concerned about their families and friends in the quake-hit areas and wanted to help.

Hina Baloch, an activist of the diaspora in Washington D.C. area, mobilized her friends and former colleagues in Pakistan for relief efforts. Her friends collected donations in Pakistan while Baloch pitched in with whatever she could gather from friends in the U.S.

She says the group has been able to deliver three truck loads worth of relief goods to the area. But her friends in the region have been shocked at how little relief work is seen on the ground.

Baloch and Ali complain Pakistani media was more obsessed in reporting about the new island than reporting on the victims of the quake.

“Media can play an important role in highlighting the plight of the people in such situations,” Ali says. “But in Pakistan, the media’s priorities are different when it comes to Balochistan.”

And international media has followed suit. Some of my friends here in Seattle knew more in the days after the earthquake about the island than the people killed

“Maybe you should plant some trees to avoid it from disappearing,” said a friend, hinting at the fact the island is made up of mud and waves will wash it away over time.

Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest and poorest province with a nine million out of Pakistan’s 180 million population. It’s rich with considerable mineral wealth, oil and gas reserves and a strategically important coastline, but the region’s population lives an impoverished life.

Decades of neglect has led to a sense of deprivation in the locals, who often say that Pakistan treats them as a colony, interested only in their resources. The region has been in the grip of a separatist insurgency in recent years, demanding an independent secular country of their own.

Very little is known of the Balochistan conflict internationally. The religious violence in the country’s northwest and the war on terror that dominate the international news from Pakistan. Thousands have been killed in Balochistan in a conflict that dates back to 1948 when Pakistan annexed the oil and gas-rich region.

In the past ten years, more than 14,000 ethnic activists have gone missing with 700 of them killed in unlawful detention in what is now called Pakistan’s little dirty war. Pakistani military is often blamed for these rights violations — charges they deny.

Quirky news of a newly formed island off the coast of Pakistan has overshadowed coverage of the casualties from the earthquakes. (Photo via Gwandar local government)
Quirky news of a newly formed island off the coast of Pakistan has overshadowed coverage of the casualties from the earthquakes. (Photo via Gwandar local government)

Tuesday’s quake hit the very areas that are a stronghold of the Baloch separatists battling Pakistan military.

The government wants to carry out relief efforts through military, but the local population and separatists doubt their intentions. The separatists say the Pakistani government is sending in more troops to the conflict-stricken region for a fresh offensive instead of relief workers.

As in the past, the Pakistani government refused to allow international humanitarian organizations to assist with the relief and rehabilitation work. The country’s disaster management agency says they can handle the situation on their own.

Continued fighting between the militants and the military has made relief efforts even harder. On Wednesday two soldiers involved in the relief effort were shot by suspected separatists, just one of several such attacks since relief efforts began. Hina Baloch says her friends only managed to get into the areas with some difficulty.

“We have been so far able to distribute food, tents, water, medicines, water coolers and other relief supplies directly to the affected population with the funds we received so far,” Baloch said via email, “but a lot needs to be done.”.

Without a charitable organization of their own in the U.S., it’s been difficult for her and her friends to collect donations on a large scale.

“If individuals and organizations would like to come forward to help, they should be in touch (with me),” says Baloch. She says her group could also assist organizations in the U.S. to partner with reliable organizations in Pakistan to help with the rebuilding efforts.

The people of Balochistan are strong,” she says. “They have experienced droughts, floods, earthquakes, military operations as well as attacks by extremist organizations and years of neglect by the state. With a little support, these people can be brought back on their feet and some sort of normalcy can return in their lives.”

Hina Baloch can be reached through this website where she gathered donations from friends for their relief work.

Muatasim Qazi

Muatasim Qazi is a Pakistani journalist now living in exile in the US. He is assistant editor for The Baloch Hal, an online newspaper which reports human rights violations and religious extremism in Balochistan and has been banned by Pakistani authorities. He can be reached at muatasimqazi@gmail.com.