Coming less than a year after the tsunami in Southeast Asia
and in the immediate wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the 7.6 magnitude
earthquake that rocked Kashmir on October 8 seemed like one natural disaster
more than American eyes could handle. So with a toll of more than 73,000
dead, 128,000 injured, and three million homeless, the first question was:
Would the relief effort be up to the task?
Early coverage of the disaster focused mainly on the
apathy of many Westerners. Compared to the prior disasters, donations to the
Kashmir earthquake were meager at best. "Catastrophe Goes Begging," ran the
headline on Shannon Tan's October 21 story in the St. Petersburg Times.
Three weeks later, Richard Reed's story in the Portland Oregonian
echoed, "Donor fatigue jeopardizes quake victims."
By mid-November, only $140 million of the estimated $550
million needed for initial emergency relief had been donated, according to
the Washington Times.
Writing in the Bergen County (N.J.) Record
November 15, Mike Kelly contrasted the donation level to tsunami relief,
which reached 99 percent of the estimated cost within a month of the
disaster. Likewise, Kelly reported, aid had "quickly poured in" after
Katrina struck. But the earthquake (in the words of Yousef Abdallah of
Islamic Relief Services) was "a forgotten tragedy."
On November 17, The United Nation's emergency coordinator
in Pakistan, Jan Vandemoortele, told Agence France Presse that some
governments had maxed out on the earlier relief efforts and were not able to
come up with the kinds of contributions they had earlier made. "Now we spend
too much time on keeping the [cash] pipeline alive when we have so little
time left to keep the people alive," Vandemoortele said. "This should not be
The exception to the portrait of lackluster donations was
Muslims living in the West, co-religionists of the victims then observing
the fast of Ramadan. "In some respects, the calamity came at the best time
because Ramadan is the month when Muslims are called to be most generous and
merciful," Safdar Chadda told Newsday's Zachary R. Dowdy, Jr. October
"If this happened any other time except Ramadan," Seattle
area Muslim leader Aziz Junejo told Seattle Times reporters Janet Tu
and Tan Vinh, "we might be seeing some of that [charity] burnout."
Muslims gave to Islamic rather than to the standard
relief agencies. Reporting in the New York Times October 14,
Stephanie Strom wrote, "Islamic Relief, one of the largest Muslim charities
in the United States, had raised almost $1 million online alone through
Wednesday, or about 10 times the amount raised by Save the Children."
In fact, Islamic charities seemed a superior choice. As
Strom pointed out, "Many of the Muslim nonprofit groups here have
established operations in Pakistan and thus are logical candidates for
charity. Islamic Relief, for instance, has more than 100 staff members in
Pakistan, and Life [for Relief and Development] operates programs there
ranging from water purification to rebuilding schools."
On November 14, the Bergen Record's Jaci Smith
reported that supplies brought to Kashmir by Muslim charities like Islamic
Relief and Operation USA would be disbursed to the people who need them
"within hours of landing."
At a conference held in Islamabad on November 19,
international donors pledged $200 million more than the $5.2 billion
requested by Pakistan for relief and reconstruction - and the "donor
fatigue" story line dissipated. What came to the fore in the U.S. media was
a story line about the use of aid to earn the good will of Pakistanis.
"Winning hearts and minds," that resonant Cold War
phrase, encapsulated the American relief effort. While U.S. military
helicopters delivered food and supplies to destroyed villages and refugee
camps, U.S. military personnel set up field hospitals to care for the
victims of the earthquake. Relief supplies were tattooed with the stars and
stripes so as to let everyone know who provided the tents and blankets to
The Pakistanis took note. "It has changed our opinion
about the United States," Muhammad Farid, a Pakistani doctor, told David
Rohde in a New York Times story Otober 26. Anti-American Muslim
clerics were wrong about the American relief workers, Farid said. "They have
been accusing all these people of spreading immorality, but these are the
people who came to save our lives."
On November 13, Pakistani newspaper editor Najam Sethi
told Trudy Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer that the United States
"has had a better profile in Pakistan in the last few weeks than in the last
Not all refugees were convinced of the purity of American
motives. In a November 28 article headlined "A battle for minds," Saad Habib,
a 14-year-old student at an Islamic school or madrasa, told reporter
Jim Landers that although "we appreciate the help," America was still "the
enemy of Islam."
No less than during the Cold War, America was in a
competitive hearts-and-minds situation. Then it was the Soviets pushing
communism. Now, in the war on terror, it was Muslim militants pushing
radical Islam. And in Kashmir, the militants were first on the scene
offering aid to victims.
"Immediately after the earthquake, the best organized aid
relief came from groups such as Pakistan's main radical Islamic party,
Jamaat I-Islami, which previously backed the Taliban government of
neighboring Afghanistan," London Daily Telegraph reporter Isambard
Wilkinson wrote November 2. "Near the militarily sensitive Line of Control
that divides Pakistani-controlled Kashmir from its Indian counterpart,
several Islamist groups have been praised by normally hostile sectors of the
Pakistani media for providing aid relief."
Wilkinson found that, even though many of their training
bases in the area had been destroyed, militant groups were adopting children
orphaned by the earthquake and giving them an "Islamic education" in special
camps. "This is more than just a humanitarian mission," declared Mark
Phillips in a CBS Evening News dispatch November 28. "It's a new
front in the war on terror."
On December 28, Newsday's James Ruppert reported
that Vice President Dick Cheney had pressured Pakistani president Pervez
Musharraf to bar militant Islamist groups from doing relief work in Kashmir,
but that Musharraf was unwilling to comply. Any such effort, Rupport wrote,
would risk a "popular backlash" in the quake zone.
"The administration," sniffed the San Francisco
Chronicle in a January 2 editorial, "should maintain an embarrassed
silence about the humanitarian work of suspect organizations in Pakistan's
devastated region - especially because the militants are notably
unsuccessful recruiting among the tolerant, moderately inclined people of
Meanwhile, media attention was turning to the hardship
the refugees were facing from harsh winter weather conditions. In the
December issue of Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi wrote, "What we failed
to realize was that the quake left behind 3 million utterly impoverished
people to live in tents - in tents if they're lucky, under the stars if
they're not - in a region where heavy snowfall and severe winters are the
Pointing out that relief efforts would be greatly slowed
or even halted for the winter. Taibbi explained the Kashmir crisis as "a
two-stage disaster whose second act will happen away from the camera."
On December 21, Los Angeles Times foreign
correspondent Paul Watson reported that hundreds of thousands of Pakistani
refugees were at risk because of inadequate shelter. On January 10, South
Asia was hit by the iciest weather in decades.
It was hard to win hearts and minds when bodies were
frozen to death.