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Winter’s chill threat

Observations on Pakistan

Ziarat, a valley in Pakistan's remote southern province of Balochistan, has juniper forests, apple orchards, and mountains all around against a clean blue sky. On 29 October it was hit by a double earthquake. Houses built of thick mud to insulate against extreme heat and cold collapsed suddenly. More than 400 people were killed and roughly 60,000 others were left homeless.

"It was like a giant stamping on the mountain," says Hajeeb Muhammad, a middle-aged man smoking a cigarette next to the rubble that was his home. "Clouds of dust rose from cracks in the earth. In my life I have never seen anything like it." Behind him small children clamber and laugh among the wooden beams and broken walls which are all that is left of Waam, the worst-affected village.

There is ice in the shadows, and once the winter's snow falls it will stay until April. Sheltering the homeless is a race against time. Trucks packed with tents, food and blankets pour into Ziarat from Quetta, the provincial capital 50km away, and relief camps have been set up along the roadside. But this is Pakistan, and the Ziarat relief operation follows a pattern.

"Only those who have contacts to high officials are receiving the aid," says Muhammad Rahim, who has been camping on a relation's lawn for weeks. "The officials have hidden the things in their rooms," says Zeb Noor. "They are selling it off instead of giving it away." The market in Kuchlak, a town on the way to Ziarat, is awash in cheap blankets, flour and food oil.

Hasan Mazumdar, Pakistan country director of the aid organisation Care International, is not surprised. "Ziarat is a typical case," he says. "My staff faced a lot of problems, but the main issue was corruption."

"We could see people from other districts being given things meant for us," says Matiullah, another local resident. "We complained but the soldiers told us it was up to them how they distribute things. When we protested they beat us with sticks." Other claims, such as that aid is being "distributed" in towns that exist only on paper, are harder to verify, but the anger in Ziarat is real.

"The media ignore us," complains Abdul Rafah. "They're only interested in talking to officials and taking bribes; when the beatings took place they were busy watching the prime minister."

Yousuf Raza Gilani, the PM, paid a brief visit on 17 November. He promised compensation to families which had lost loved ones, and money for reconstruction. Officially the visit was a success. The next day the Balochistan Times ran a front-page editorial headlined "Thank you, Mr Prime Minister," which stated: "His presence among the victims of national calamity and words of solace for them would go a long way in removing their mental and physical agony."

The people of Ziarat put it differently. "Eighteen days. It took him 18 days to come here," moans Hajeeb Muhammad.

"In Pakistan, no one's punctual," jokes his friend Saidullah, but then he adds, suddenly serious: "If the Punjab had been hit he'd have been there within a day. Anyway, we all know the money will go straight in some politician's pocket."

In Balochistan, Pakistan's largest and least developed province, ethnic tensions are never far from the surface. The Pashtun population of Ziarat accuse Baloch officials of neglecting them and everyone accuses the Punjabi-dominated government of exploiting Balochistan's resources to benefit the Punjab.

As old arguments drag on, winter approaches. "It's freezing out there," says Hasan Mazumdar. "My concern, especially for children, is that more will die of cold than were killed by the earthquake."

Sam Alexandroni was awarded a 2008 Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship. For more information on the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust visit:

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The power of speech