In 2005 I was in Pakistan when the earthquake struck. I was in the capital Islamabad where I was stationed by Islamic Relief, and I was more than three hours drive from the epicentre, yet I still felt the sheer strength of the earthquake in my home. What struck me the most was the deafening noise released which was coming from the ground. This, combined with the rattling and shaking buildings and their contents created a terrifying sound. What shocked me at a later stage when I went to the scene of the earthquake was what people told me. They described how the earth rumbled and when they tried to get into open areas they felt as though they were being pulled or dragged back.
I also vividly remember the journey to the earthquake affected area, a journey I had made many times in the previous months to reach our field operations. As you approached the devastating signs of destruction grew greater and greater.
Islamic Relief was one of the few aid agencies who were already working in the remote mountainous areas that had been devastated by the earthquake. In this situation the fact that Islamic Relief and those affected by the disaster shared the same faith meant that we were able to interact with local communities, gain their respect easily and were able to carry out the work we needed to do.
In Pakistan being a Muslim from a Muslim organisation helped me to do my job successfully. But in other countries it has made no difference, Afghanistan being one of them. After the 2001 crisis large numbers of Afghans crossed the borders into Pakistan. It was here that we were assisting them and running refugee camps in Balochistan. But here our shared faith had little impact – when people are desperate it does not matter who is giving them help. Many of the refugees we worked with had been affected by decades of war and suffering and had spent years relying on aid given by various organisations. For a refugee who has lost everything and is clinging onto life, it does not matter what religion the person giving them aid follows, or what colour they are or where they are from for that matter. They just want to know that you can deliver.
I also think that it is encouraging that faith always becomes irrelevant in the midst of a disaster such as the tsunami. After the tsunami I saw hundreds of organisations from all over the world gathered in Indonesia. The sole purpose of every one of these groups was to provide aid and assistance to those who were suffering. To do this effectively organisations grouped together and worked together. Faith was never on the agenda of the aid agencies or the beneficiaries.
While each individual may have had their own motivations – religious or otherwise – for being in Indonesia and for staying there despite the difficulties, the most important thing was that aid reached those who needed it.