Sunday, April 12, 2015

Endorsing Candidates for Elections; what constitutes the best candidate?

By Ghulam Amin Beg

As the so-called provincial legislative assembly-GBLA elections are coming closer in Gilgit Baltistan, the social media has started debating the qualities and qualifications of the best candidates aspiring for political leadership for the next four years or so.

The parties active in Gilgit Baltistan politics are also looking for candidates from within party cadres as well as outside and new entrants to be awarded tickets to contest the election. There are independent candidates also, queuing up.

While the minority committed voters, will always follow the party leadership and discipline, the silent majority and swing voters, look for certain qualities of the personalities contesting, the party programs and track record of party and individual performance, and obviously local power dynamics and local issues also influence these decisions, at individual, family and village, valley and community levels, whether to vote or not to vote for x or y candidate or party.

However, the important denomination is to make a sound judgment and analysis, of why to vote and who is the best trust bearer of one's vote, if somebody decides to go to poll?

In my humble opinion, somebody who is better qualified then others. Somebody who has more diverse experience and professional training, somebody who has the knowledge and skills to bring about change in the lives of the people and improve the quality of life of the poor. Somebody who epitomizes vision, strong will power, determination, honesty, merit, equality, humility and generosity. Somebody who has the will and ability to challenge the ruthless Pakistani corrupt politics, now taking roots in GB, which only honours status quo, under the table deals, patronage, whitening black money, favoritism and sifarish culture.

Irrespective of the macro level debates like the constitutional status, the fallacy of the Gilgit Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order, the efficacy of GBLA, the role of the bureaucracy and establishment in maintaining status quo and the conspiracy theories and greater games, the economic corridor and strategic interests of Gilgit Baltistan etc, which are the legitimate concerns of the nationalists and parties inclined to the left, the reality is, the common people are pissed off due to the day to day problems and miseries they have, and are more worried about how to overcome these issues! The federal and center-right parties mostly bank on these day to day issues and instill fear in the minds of the common people, along with their time tested 'sectarian cards' and scare them about the 'dangerous designs of nationalists', who raise macro economic and strategic issues and idealism, which has less to do with day to day problems. This way they are able to grab votes and continue the status quo in collusion with the establishment, as is blamed by nationalists and progressive groups.

However, the hard fact is that the common people continue to suffer due to colonial policies of Islamabad and local inaction and corruption of local leadership. Over one third of the population in GB hardly earn 1 US dollar a day, close to half of the population have no access to safe clean drinking water, half of population illiterate and have no access to basic health services, uninterrupted power supply is like a dream, and even cities like Gilgit remain in darkness for 15-20 hours, despite having huge hydro power potential etc. why?

Yes, corruption, mismanagement, bad governance, favoritism, and lack of respect for merit, sectarianism and patronage politics are blamed for all the illnesses we face today.
And those candidates and flags that were linked to this mess in the past, directly or indirectly, are not going to change anything for us for sure! But whether new flags can really change things... we have to put our fingers crossed too!

However, the question is who will show light at the end of the tunnel? How to get out of this mess? Obviously these questions are rightly asked every four year, when elections are due. But elections in GB and Pakistan have proved to be a vicious cycle of electing bigger thieves to catch the smaller thieves and vice versa!!

In my constituency, Hunza-Gojal, what are the people looking for in terms of their elected political leadership? I think the majority, especially youth; political activists and the intelligentsia constantly seek:
·         A political leader who is honest, meritocratic and compassionate, who is willing to sit with the poor and vulnerable on the floor, and listen to their problems and worries, and consoles them in hard times, personal as well as communal.  
·      Political leader who carry the trust of the public exchequer and delivers it to those who most need it in the constituency in the most transparent and accountable manner.
·  Political leader who reflect the genuine aspirations of the majority people, not the vested interests and those with influence and money.
·    Political Leader who becomes the bold voice of the people in hard times and represent them at GB, national and international levels with grace, dignity and wisdom.
·    Political leader who proactively leads and guide other elected members of the GBLA to introduce and adopt innovative legislation in the assembly and creates alliances with other progressive people and groups in GB to create and maintain peace and inter-sectarian and ethnic harmony.
· Political leader who mobilizes youth and women and the poor to stand up against repression and fight for human rights, equality and constitutional citizens of Pakistan.

As, the candidates reach out to us, Lets listen to them all patiently, ask them relevant questions, and lets pass them through hard tests, before we decide to vote for the candidate of our choice. Change will come through collective will of the people to act, and it is reflected in the quality of leadership we chose to represent us and be our voice!

We have to continue soul searching and looking for the best alternative, till the time, we go to vote, or decide not to vote at all, as we may come to the conclusion after listening to the candidates and analyzing their party programs for us!!

Currently, the search continues for the best available, and best alternative!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Last Journey of My Father; Biyomorz Zafarullah Beg

Rafti, rafti Khuda nighban e tu boshad,
Shams e qamar e, sitora hum rohe tu boshad
Ghulam Amin Beg

On Sunday, 21st December, 2014, I lost my father to heart failure. May his soul rest in eternal peace!

He was 86 years of age diagnosed and under medication for hypertension, diabetes, reduced functioning of kidneys and had a history of stroke some years back and recently taking medicine for mild AR.  He was under treatment of Medical specialist, cardiologist Dr. Abdul Rehbar in Gilgit and nephrologists Brig. Dr. Haleem in Islamabad. More recently he had undergone TURP operation for prostrate at Quaid Azam International Hospital Islamabad under surgeon urologist Dr.Fayaz Bangash.  For some years he was also diagnosed with glaucoma of eyes and was under treatment of Dr. Anwar in Islamabad and Dr. Qayum in Gilgit. He was quite happy and satisfied with the doctors mentioned above, and we thank them all for their healing touch, gentleness and support to my father for last many years.

But he was otherwise okay, walking, talking and taking routine diet and taking good care of himself. He was very regular in taking medicines and eye drops as well his regular diet, except for the last 4-5 days when started refusing regular diet and shifted to liquid. He has this amazing spirit of resilience and high will power and would always combine both allopathic medicines with traditional treatment through diet regulation and body and mind relaxation, applying indigenous techniques he had learned from his father and grandfather and would prescribe for others also and highly cherish this family legacy he carried and would generously teach others. Even during the last month of his life he used to receive patients with orthopedic cases  regularly at home in Gilgit and Gulmit, received delegation of visitors and community leaders and participated in funeral services and visitation to those sick and talked to people over the phone.  Traveling was his passion, though he would usually pick his day, especially when it came to going to a doctor or returning back to our native village in Gulmit or to Yarzrich in Chupurson valley, where he started with other elders land development three decades ago, and had this strong territorial sense to defending the village boundaries of Gulmit from Baldihale to Yarzrich.  He would never feel easy outside the area and would always insist on going back to his birthplace.

Despite our reservations, he recently moved to Gulmit, our native village on 7th December for supervision and preparation of the marriage arrangements of my younger sister planned for 16 December, he was in high spirit and advising us throughout on the traditions and invitations etc. He used to say, jokingly, this was his last participation in a marriage, so he advised us not to forget any close relative, especially women members of the family and relatives, the old and the sick, and those who have lost their loved ones, and do invite them and prepare gifts for them. We prepared the list with his consent and updated him regularly on the status of preparations. He insisted on preparing the traditional dishes and also keeping simplicity and honoring the rules set by Ismaili institutions.  

On 13th December, he attended the ‘bet risid’-ribbon cutting ritual, and also received a community delegation meeting at our home, discussing community development issues, even entering into hot discussions on some issues with members on accountability and managing Panjasho Oston trust income, I was told later, as I was not present, though he briefly updated me in the evening as to what was discussed in the meeting and that I should now be taking interest in these affairs and provide guidance to the VO and community  on such issues, as he may not be able to continue this role for long. I felt he was disheartened by the discussions, and told him not to worry, we were all with him and he can better advise us all.   

During the week, dozens of people, relatives, friends, old patients of his, well wishers and community elders visited him to ask about his health, which is a tradition in our area, and this in a way proved to be his final greetings with all of them.

On 14th December, he had a minor complaint of dehydration and stopped normal diet intake and started his traditional recipe, so that he was fit on marriage day. My younger brother Fazal Amin Beg and elder brother Chairman Rehmatullah Beg from Karachi called Sahib Jan, from Civil Hospital Gulmit requesting him to visit home. He visited him and along Sabrina ( my niece, daughter of elder brother recently graduated from AKUSON, who came all the way from Karachi to meet grandpa) helped administer dextrose drip and injections.

 ‘Boys, I am going to die. Lets pray I survive through your sister’s marriage tomorrow’, my father told me and younger brother on the night of 15th December, while taking sips of cold water, which he used to take come what may. ‘Don’t ever stop giving me cold water, this is my advice to you’ he said, when I offered him warm water, as it was too cold and could lead to throat and chest infection.

I used to joke with him, and knowing he was deeply spiritual person inside, I told him, “ Father, don’t  play God, as only He knows who will die, when, how and where, nothing is going to happen, you just try to take some food and hot fluid you are going to be fine. We will leave for Gilgit after the marriage ceremony is over’, I suggested. He shook his head in negation, and said, “you don’t know, I know my health. I am having strange dreams, and all our grand ancestors are constantly gathering around our house in dream, dancing and seemed to be celebrating something” he was firm in his conviction as to why the spirits were on the move. “Don’t move me from here”, he advised.

However, after the administration of drip, he sounded improving with no major complaint, except reduced intake of normal diet and speed breathing when walked to washroom, still refusing to leave for Gilgit on this pretext or the other. On 20th December, Ahmedullah from Sost visited him, and upon his request to visit his doctor in Gilgit and that he will also accompany him, he agreed to leave the next morning.

On Sunday, 21st December, Ahmedullah came, as we wanted to leave in his vehicle, but suddenly my father’s blood pressure lowered down to 95/50. It was around 11:45 a.m. Saleem Hyder and Ahmedullah advised to bring ambulance and we accompanied my father from our home in Gulmit for the local Civil Hospital in Chamangul, only 10 minutes drive to rush to the doctor for emergency support seeking help to providing emergency oxygen and do nebulisation, before we could take him to a physician in Gilgit, almost three and half hours away. Still a long way to go and we put our fingers crossed as to what will happen next!

As we reached the Hospital, Salim Hyder and Dr. Akram Khan, Medical Officer, came to see him in the parking lot, after initial examination inside the ambulance and based on his earlier visit to my father three days back at home regarding complaints of dehydration and knowing he was taking medicines including one for heart disease (digoxin 0.25 mg) prescribed by Dr Rehbar, the doctor declared heart failure and pulmonary edema, and advised us to immediately shift him to Aga Khan Health Aliabad Hunza, as there was no oxygen available, nor there was nebulizer in the Government Civil Hospital at Gulmit. We rushed to the boat after Salim Hyder administered injection lasix 20mg/2ml on the advice of the doctor. My younger brother Attaullah Baig, elder sister Parveen Rehmat and brother in law Shiekh Hasan and Qasim bhai from Ghulkin accompanied my father in the final leap of his journey. My mother, two sisters, my wife and son and nephews also accompanied us in another vehicle.

Obviously, the Government ambulance that took him from home had no such facilities or services either.  Afzal bhai, the Ambulance driver took care of everything, from calling Aliabad to arranging for an ambulance, to coordinating for the boat service with Salim Hyder and Sahib Jan, to shifting us and we rushed to the Ayeenabad boat stand, where the emergency boat service was available. The laborers and passengers helped us and my father was shifted to the emergency boat on a stretcher provided by the hospital ambulance. The emergency boat, operated under the administration of the health department, had no such services like oxygen, nebulizer or a professional attendant to provide emergency care on the route. Again, the boat operator and Afzal bhai, the ambulance driver who accompanied us to the next spillway stand, were and remained the only ray of hope, in case anything happens on the way!

It took us 25 to 30 minutes to reach the Ataabad spillway, and the ambulance had reached there inland from Aliabad Civil Hospital. My father was shifted again from the boat to the ambulance with help from the laborers and passengers and we rushed to Aliabad, which took us another 30 or so minutes.

 At the gate of Aga khan Health Center Aliabad we stopped and my elder sister and I went inside to know if doctors were available and if they could provide emergency service. The nurse on duty came and told us there was only one doctor who was in ICU and providing emergency treatment to a third degree burn case. We can see young attendant worried outside. We requested the nurse and told him the emergency nature of the case, she went inside ICU and the doctor came out and examined my father in the ambulance, and advised to rush to Gilgit, as nebulisation will take over one hour and we must not lose time. He asked the ambulance driver if there was enough oxygen available, he said 50% had been utilized already, and the doctor told him to borrow one from them (Aga Khan Health), but the nurse said even they don’t have auxiliary small cylinders either for ambulance, and the nurse plugged in the oxygen, and we were advised to rush to Gilgit with the half-filled oxygen cylinder as time was ticking.

On the way, my father was conscious and at each spot my younger brother would tell him where we had reached. In Sikandarabad Nagar, the oxygen cylinder emptied and we were worried. At around 3:25 p.m. around Rahimabad, my father breathing slowed down, and around Nomal- Sultanabad we could sense something went wrong. The driver rushed the ambulance, and we reached Aga Khan Health Center Gilgit. I jumped out and went to the emergency and the doctor was on round. He came within half a minute and we took him to the ambulance to shifting my father to the emergency. Upon examination, his first reaction was there was no pulse, then he did further examination and asked the nurse to take BP, looked into his eyes, and examined feet and legs, and declared that he had expired!!
My elder sister was along, and all in cries. We had to manage the situation, said our prayers and calmed her down and I requested the ambulance driver to take us to the nearest Ismaili Jamat Khan mortuary in Zulfiqarabad for funeral arrangements and services and onward transportation of the body to Gulmit the next morning. My first call was to uncle Sarfraz breaking the bad news and requesting him to inform the mortuary service, and second call was to Mukhi Amir Hayat in Gulmit to do arrangements and third to elder brother in Karachi to book flight and return the next day.

My mother, two sisters, my wife and son and nieces/nephews who also accompanied us in another vehicle, we advised them to reach home in Sonikot, as we were returning home.

The whole evening and night relatives, community members and friends came to see us and stayed the night with the dead body at the Zulfiqarabad mayat room.

The next morning we left for Gulmit, and on the way at Aliabad, members of Gojal community and relatives and friends offered fateha. We reached Gulmit by 11:00 a.m. and the funeral service and namaz janaza was offered and the body was buried in peace amongst thousands of mourners on 22 December.

This was the story of the last journey of my father.

Like all good fathers are, my father was a great human being; humble, honest, loving and compassionate. We lost our provider, teacher, protector, a great friend, change agent, our leader, our hero and our inspiration in life. He was social, highly spiritual, humanitarian and generously sharing his skills, knowledge and whatever material goods he owned with us and with others. He was 18 when he started receiving patients at home, visited long distances to treat patients for free for almost 68 years. He treated over 40,000 patients during this period, and almost 80% of them visited our home for treatment, and he would always consider them guests and advise us to honor them as guests. He lived a full life engaged in all kinds of traditional sports, adventure travel, business and trade travel in those days to Afghanistan, started his own business, as tribal elder, participated in tribal, regional and communal politics and acted as arbitrator, facilitator in inter-family, inter and intra village and area based disputes resolutions etc, in the area. He had the power and ability to adjust himself to changing social and political situations and always remained a key driver and learner in local affairs, and kept himself abreast of new developments in the area, GB, Pakistan and even the broader region surrounding our area. 

For the family, he has left behind a legacy of serving the community without any social titles and economic return, a hope for those who came to him for healing, making himself always available to the sick and to those in pain. He has this strong sense of sovereignty and trusteeship of the territorial boundaries of the area, especially ownership and protection of the natural resources and rangelands, and would always advise us to be proactive in protecting the interests of the area and the community at large. He strongly believed in kinship and tribal relationships in our historical and socio-cultural context, and would always find time in explaining to kids and elders alike of the blood relations and strong network of family and relatives that one must recognize and maintain relations for generations, irrespective of time and space. He would always advise us, the sons, to keep their unity, keeping the doors open to sisters and women members of the extended family and always providing support whenever they look back to their parent’s home, especially never forgetting them when there are happy occasions in the family. And lastly, always keep in touch with your roots, never ever resort to selling the ancestral land and always keeping links and making ourselves available to the community in times of need, grief and other occasions.

May his soul rest in eternal peace.

We thank the hundreds of community members, friends and relatives who visited him during his last days at home, participated in his funeral services and sent us condolence messages and prayers. We really found comfort in your words and prayers.

Our deepest gratitude to all those mourning with our family, especially to those friends and relatives who attended and accompanied him during last days, and joined us during his last journey.Grateful to those who offered their prayers through telephone, sms, facebook and social media.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Attaabad Lake Transportation: Prey, Predators and the Role of Government

By Ghulam Amin Beg

After the spring festival of Navroz, 21st March, I visited upper Hunza-Gojal, my native sub-district, to attend to backlog of condolence visits to families who lost their loved ones during last two months, as I was away on visits to Baltistan, Islamabad and Chitral during those days. Frequent visits to the area to attend to community and social events is generally restricted because of the many hurdles of transportation to upstream of the Attaabad lake. The visit to Gulmit also took me across to Chipurson valley, as unfortunately uncle Barkat had also expired in Kirmin. This journey to Gojal provided me an opportunity to visiting dozens of bereaved families and friends, and meeting and seeing people traveling upstream and downstream in boats; the discussions and observations, left me with impressions that majority of the people, in the post Attaabad Lake scenario, continue living miserably and others are living in fantasy!

When natural disasters struck marginalized and socially, economically and politically vulnerable communities in such harsh physical and hazardous mountain regions in sensitive political border areas, like those in upper Hunza, it makes such exposed communities, susceptible to all kinds of piercing strikes; right, left and centre, and they become easy prey to all kind of predators and exploiters; big and small, local and outsiders, officials and business mafias, and petty political interests, and criminal groups alike!
Since January 4, 2010, when the Attabad landslide created over 25 kilometer long lake, inundating over six village hamlets, displacing over 500 households as IDPs, destroying billion worth of private land, crops, houses, fruit trees and community assets, and submerging a sizable section of the only lifeline, the Karakoram Highway-KKH, caging over 25,000 people between the lake and the fenced wall of political borders with China and Afghanistan, the vulnerable people beyond Hunza Attabad Lake continue to live miserably for almost three years now, looking forward to when the China Aid will come, and when the Pakistani politicians and officials will deliver on their hollow promises made.

In fact many have lost their lives in their struggle to getting access to basic health care; others have lost the meaning of life, and considering it a fate accompli to live such a gloomy life without access to medicines and to professional medical care, and still others, especially the white color poor, continue their fight to survive, economically and psychologically, who are fixed with all kind of social and economic pressures to make their ends meet, as well as to show a brave face, as if they were copping well!
Privately, their only refuge is to pray as to when their miseries will end, or alas, their life ends, and pray for those fortunate ones, who left them or left the area, without going through all the miseries in life, which they never thought they will encounter in a free world, close to virgin nature, with no pressures of urban life, but they feel trapped now! The most helpless and depressed among these vulnerable people, are those who could be categorized as senior citizens, children, special persons, women, the sick and those less fortunate families living less than a dollar a day!

Currently, Upper Hunza, presents a look of a ruthless jungle kingdom, which is encircled by blood thirsty carnivores and predators of all kinds ready to attack, a weak population of flocks, from any direction, any time and who are left at their own mercy by their shepherds,! The king of the predators are positioned at each entry points; at the Attabad spillway, where the operators work following a particular mindset, which is based on the notion that the local people are somehow involved in some kind of peccadillo, and perhaps seen as lesser Muslims or even humans according to their perceived definition, so there is no need for urgency of opening up the spillway or creating some sense of comfort for travelers. The simple formula is ‘no mercy’!

Their only daily task, it seems, is to create more and more hurdles of debris in the way of the sick, the old, the women and the children, stop vehicles from reaching closure to the boat harbor, and almost daily or on weekly basis disallowing mobility of people in a smooth way.

The second category of predators is the boat operators; who operate under one rule of the jungle, i.e. ‘survival of the fittest’! There is no boat service offered by the government for the ‘public’; the two boats floating in the lake by GB government are only operational when there is mobility by ‘key public servants’, the high officials and politicians planning visits. The private boat operators are obviously there to make money, so their only priority is to maximize profit through cargo service; ferrying people is not profitable. So rest assured, if you reach the spillway, and if you don’t make over 20 passengers, or are unable to pay for full booking of the boat, you may be floating on the bank for 2-3 hours waiting for Allah! If you are sick, or old or women or children, or if you have an emergency to attend to, they don’t bother; pay for booking and you will get your service, or wait, and wait! It will cost you between Rs. 2000 to Rs.4000 for a one hour ferrying, depending upon the timing, weather, and your bargaining skills. What will the poor, a student and middle income person do, whose total monthly salary is half of what one will pay for a single one-way trip home?
What is the role of the government here? The boat service comes under the administrative control of the district administration. You only see two police constables on the spillway, who are most of the time hands in gloves with the boat operators. It is strange to note, that the district administration has placed no schedule of boat services in public, there is no rates for transportation displayed anywhere, there is no number displayed for complaints, no emergency service available, if any accident happens, there is no emergency boat service notified, no safety instructions written and displayed anywhere, the life jackets and other safety gadgets are not available on the boats.
Is the change in Government in Islamabad, creating any new political alignments in GB? Is the conscience of the PMLN leaders and activists in Hunza-Gojal and GB still alive, or has submerged in the lake, like those of the previous lords of Islamabad?

Can the new Chief Secretary take notice of this situation and issue instructions to the district administration in Hunza to create humane environment for the people, who have many other worries and scars left by the inactions of the government in the aftermath of the Lake?


Saturday, September 8, 2012

Fatal Van Accident in Gojal: From the Wedding Dance to the Dance of Death

By  Ghulam Amin Beg

It was early morning of Chorshamba, Wednesday, the 22nd August 2012.

Clear sky, seemingly a good day!

 It was a wedding day!

The small hamlet of Kamaris in Gulmit, the tehsil headquarter of Gojal in upper Hunza with 33 households, around 330 people, almost all having close kinship and communal relationships with each other, were in joy. It was like celebratory and pleasurable day.

Preparations for wedding of one of the educated young gentleman continued for three days during Eid vacations. As a tradition, preparation started with bet-rasidh, ribbon cutting, shapik-pacak, preparing traditional wheat-bread for two days and the final day, ghust-pacak, preparing the traditional meat sufra. Women, children, young and old, all seemed excited and in a celebrative mode, as the final day reached, when the Shoni, the bride-groom, will go as far as Khyber village, around 30 kilometers north of Gulmit towards Sost, and bringing back a bidghanz, the bride, back to the village.

As the custom is, over two dozen tuiche’ or wedding procession or party was selected a day earlier. Utmost care was taken to include at least one person from each sub-clan and close relatives, preferably the notables, respected and young and educated, who were in the village on those dates due to preceding Eid vacations. This is considered as an honour by both sides; by those nominated, and by the wedding family.

Nearby, in neighboring village of Ghulkin, young scouts for some time now have formed their own musical band; the Hunza trio-band having drum, damal and surnay players. The bride-groom and his friends decided to contact the young musical band, and they happily agreed to play music for the wedding procession as well as accompany them to Khyber to play for the wedding dance, tamosho at both villages, first time that the group was entertaining audiences outside their village.
With shoni nivizen soz, bridal departure music, happy tears and excitement and prayers, the villagers in Kamaris seen off the bride-groom and wedding procession starting travel early morning taking two vehicles from Kamaris to Gulmit, then boating over the Attaabad Lake tail-end between Gulmit and Hussaini harbour, and then again mounting three vehicles to reach the bride’s village around 9:30 in the morning. The bride-groom and procession was received by the family of bride and elders of Imamabad Khyber, after the rasmi-nikah, wedding ceremony in the village jamotkhona and exchange of wedding-ring. Happy moments were captured through snap shots and video clips on mobiles, group photos with family and friends and formal video streams by videographer.

While the family of the bride was preparing traditional food to be served around early noon, the traditional wedding dance started outside in a nearby open space. As a tradition, the guests coming from outside the village, as part of the wedding procession with the bride-groom were invited to dance in groups started from the most elderly to the young in order of age and rank, as is the custom in Gojal, followed by the host village taking their turn.

As the wedding dances from both sides completed, food was served and the bridal procession restarted their journey towards south, taking the same transportation mode on return back to its final destination in the afternoon, expected to be greeted with prayers, drums, children noise and dances, at Kamaris again in late evening.

However, unaware of their fate and the looming death scenes, when the vehicles crossed Passu village and was only 10 minutes away from the Hussaini port harbor, passing through the Sholimol rocky ridge, something happened!

Nobody was aware, nobody will know, what and why it happened?
One of the unfortunate vans driving by an experienced driver went off track rolling down the rock.

Killing two on the spot, as we know it now, they were our very dears; late Aqil Khan and late Bakhtullah Baig. Besides, we were cousins; we lived together in Karachi for over 10 years under one small roof. Aqil bhai cared for us, supported us all, like a single family.
The first news of their casualty was confirmed within 15-20 minutes of the accident by Majeed ullah Baig, my cousin over the mobile phone to my wife and me from the site of accident, with crying voice. He was himself fortunate to be riding the second van, following the unfortunate first van.

There was hue and cry, which I could overhear over the phone. He told me there were many who were very seriously injured without naming anybody and disconnected in grief. Later we found over 13 critically injured with multiple wounds, out of the 16 passengers boarding the vehicle, almost all known to us and were members of our extended family. 
It was like a hell fire! The videographer standing on another vehicle was making video, when he captured the scene of a van rolling down the hill and the dust rising in the air, which I watched on YouTube later!

The last wedding dance had turned into a dance of death!
As the news unfolded, we were told over the phone in Gilgit that the wounded are being transferred through vans and boats to Gulmit from Hussaini, where the government has constructed a 10-bed hospital. We were hopeful; at least others would be treated to safe recovery, as we were not aware of the severity of the accident. We were in Gilgit, and it was kind of ‘no traffic’ day, as government had disallowed public and private vehicles on the road due to security situation in the town. We had to leave to Hunza taking with us sister Gulnar and other family members. Thanks to Dr Sher Aziz, who favored us to ride the Rescue 1122 ambulances that were going to transfer seriously injured from Hunza to Gilgit. While we were preparing to leave, subsequently came the bad news that Nambardar Nasiruddin and two young chaps, Shahidin and Irfan Karim from Ghulkin have also succumbed to death while reaching the hospital and at the hospital, where there was no emergency doctor posted by government. Dr Khadijah, the Aga Khan Health Centre’s, Child and maternity service contract doctor, who is posted on a project in Hunza, but transferred to Gulmit health centre, volunteered to support the community at the government hospital, despite the fact that there was no proper support system to help her and the wounded, she and the government hospital paramedic team trying their level best to save lives, we were told. There was no emergency support system at the hospital in terms of availability of life saving drugs, bandages, availability of filled oxygen cylinder etc. Despite the fact that there was a fully equipped operating room, however, due to unavailability of technical staff positions, the equipments and the magnificent building remained useless to save precious lives.

It was but natural that hundreds of desperate people, youth, volunteers and relatives rushed to the hospital and created a situation at the hospital where it was becoming difficult for the doctor and staff to perform their duties with whatever limited resources and tools in their hands.
After almost two hours or so of struggle for life and life saving efforts at the hospital, the doctor and team who were already feeling helpless and under immense pressure, as such level of injuries were beyond their means and the crowding of people inside the wards created more problems than solutions, she has to refer the cases to Hunza, as if some specialist doctors will attend to them or some miracle may happen to save some lives, despite the fears of loss of travel time between road, boat and again road transfer at Ataabad spillway, which takes almost two hours. All other injured, except for Razi, including Nasir Iqbal, Dad Ali, Shaukat Aziz, Mujahid, Wasi, Deedar, Iman Hussain, Khadim and Akram to Aliabad in central Hunza.

Dozens rushed to the hospital beds of the wounded, and transferred them in whatever vehicle was available. The government ambulance was out of fuel, the government run speed boat was out of fuel and they refused to drive, unless the people give money for fuel or fill their fuel tanks. It was only when desperate youth insisted and threatened them of dire consequences, they started moving, we were told by youth when we reached Aliabad hospital in Hunza from Gilgit around 10:30 p.m.  On the way between Gilgit and Hunza, we saw ambulances coming one by one, and found that the doctors in Aliabad further referred more critically wounded to Gilgit; first ambulance brought Wasi, the van driver, than Mujahid and Iman Hussain in another ambulance. We have to shift from the fully equipped Rescue 1122 ambulance which Dr Sher Aziz sent to transfer the wounded to Gilgit.

We took a sigh of relief to see Khadim and Akram at the Aga Khan Health Centre in Aliabad, and Surgeon Dr Amir Ahmed, who volunteered to travel from Gilgit to visit the wounded in Aliabad, examined them, and confirmed they were out of danger. Thanks God.
We moved to the government hospital in Aliabad Hunza. On the way, Uncle Sarfraz broke the bad news to Riaz bhai that two of his elder brothers are among the dead. This was like a quake. As we reached the hospital we found three dead bodies and a big crowed of people outside the hospital; bodies of Subedar Dad Ali, Ala Nambardar Nasir Iqbal and Kamadia Shaukat Aziz were wrapped in white sheets and placed in a hospital room. Everybody was speechless!

The funeral committee (Mayaat committee) of Aliabad community, the volunteers, boy Scouts and the local council President and members, the regional council secretary and members, all were seen actively taking care of the dead bodies and the families of the deceased at the hospital. Hundreds of students, professionals and business people from Gojal were seen standing and providing moral and healing support; many of them traveled with the wounded and actually took part in the initial rescue at Hussaini. Dr. Sher Hafiz and his government hospital team stood up all the night with the people opened his house for the close relatives and arranged food and resting place. While we are all up at the hospital with the three dead bodies, subsequently came another bad news from Gilgit that Mujahid who was just transferred to Gilgit, has also breathed his last as he reached the Aga Khan Health Centre in Gilgit and that his body will be brought back to Hunza same night.
The total number of causalities has now reached 9 in number.

The next morning we took the funeral procession of four dead bodies from Hunza to the spillway. The uniformed volunteers and scouts brought four boats and we reached Gulmit, only to find and thousands of men, women, young, old, children were waiting, crying and the procession went further up and up as the procession reached the final destination- Kamaris village, from where a day before, they started the wedding procession. We participated in all the funeral events and the dead were buried with solemn rituals and ceremonies.
The dance of death concluded.

I remained in the village for almost 10 days and returned back to my workplace in Gilgit.
Recently, Wasi bhai, the van driver, who was shifted to Islamabad, also unfortunately breathed his last and the body was taken back to the village for burial and services, taking the total number of causalities to 10.

In conclusion, before I say something about our miserable state of tangible health preparedness, I must say, our ‘intangible’ preparedness to provide psycho-socio support to the families is very powerful.
1.       In our social context, religion and culture plays a key role in providing healing support, guidance and prayers through rituals, funeral ceremonies and speeches and recitations from the Holy Quran, sharing the guidance from Hazir Imam, the poetry of Poet, philosopher Pir Nasir e Khusraw and others help the distressed persons and families overcome their losses through such personal and group responses. The support from the individual households, volunteers and the whole community who take care of everything from managing visitors to cooking food to voluntarily helping in completing the farming and non-farming work of the bereaved family was remarkable support that I witnessed.

2.       I also felt that death denial is a common human response by those who identify themselves ‘emotionally, spiritually and physically with someone they loved most’, and who are separated through tragic deaths like this. It takes time to accept the reality, that the loved one was no more with us physically, and that we can create new relationship of soul and mind by remembering the loved one through different paths, by following the path they choose to live or by propagating some of their ideas and thoughts and noble causes. Tragic deaths in a family system, especially death of bread earners and young people are seen like ‘emotional shock waves that run through the family like wildfire’. Our only consoling gesture would be to try our best to be of any support to the dependents with honor and dignity, in the hours of need, without hurting them or their sentiments indeed.

3.        Now, on the state of emergency preparedness in fatal accidents and emergencies. Many speakers including doctors who actually responded to the emergency, and community leaders and youth leaders talked of this in the post-accident days, so that we evaluate our state of preparedness to i) help reduce chances of such fatal accidents in the future and ii) save maximum lives if such emergencies happen again. It was a common agreement, that except for 2-3 persons, all other died because we were unable to provide proper first aid in the ‘golden hour’ and that there was no medical staff and facilities at the hospital where they were first brought or that if there was a heli rescue service operating from Gilgit, many lives could have been saved by reducing the lag time.

a.       Road accidents are considered to be one of the ‘three big killers’ in the world. And young people are more at risk of road accidents as they mostly travel and drive. In order to reduce chances of accidents, there is a need to develop a comprehensive road safety framework by involving all stakeholders; government, private transporters, communities and frequent travelers including youth on board. The framework must look at road conditions, vehicle conditions and inspection, driving licensing test systems, driver’s mental state, frequent monitoring of compliances and spot check and community awareness about traveling risks, safety measures. This also should cover the boat service and making life jackets and rescue boat with equipped staff all the more important;

b.       First aid is considered to be the ‘real life saver’ in road accidents and fatal emergencies. It is important for each transporter, community volunteers and government officials especially the police, health and education departments and the public works departments to continuously train their volunteers and staff in basic application of first aid.

c.       State of the art ambulance, both vehicle and boat ambulance and paramedics both with ambulance and at the health centres is very important emergency service that need to be provided immediately.

d.      An evaluation of the basic emergency and health preparedness of the hospitals is very important. The government hospital in Aliabad Hunza at Gulmit and the Aga Khan Health centres at Aliabad, Chipurson, Sost and Gulmit and the dispensaries should be staffed and equipped with basic emergency support systems, life saving drugs, hospital supplies and medicines.

e.      There is no blood bank in the whole Hunza region. A fully functional blood bank is the need of the hour.

f.        The Gulmit hospital should be made fully functional with immediate deployment of doctors, nurses and key paramedic staff.

g.       There is no helicopter evacuation system for such emergencies. We should not see army and AKDN helicopter active only during non-emergency times or when there is a large-scale publicized disaster such as 2010 floods to supply relief goods or VIP movements. There should be a heli rescue service operational from Gilgit, so that it reaches the valleys in a short- time, and could rescue the wounded to Gilgit hospital within the ‘golden hour’.

h.      In the long-run, there is a real need to establish state of the art trauma centre on the KKH, as this is an international border, and with the Chinese improving the KKH, there will be more traffic flow, and more vulnerability to road accidents and loss of life.
The government, the elected representatives, the Pakistan Red Crescent Society, FOCUS and AKDN should join hands to develop a comprehensive plan on road safety and responding to such fatal emergencies in any region in GB in the future.

The pathetic state of health preparedness for fatal emergencies needs to be improved without loss of further time. We lost our 10 loved ones on 22nd August.  In the past we have seen such fatalities that happened in Chipurson, Misgar and central Hunza during last 10-15 years, in which over 30 people lost lives.
We can no longer sit idle. We all need to act, and act fast, as the frequency of such fatalities continuously increase, while our response plans and capacities remain rudimentary.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Aggression and Siege Continues in Khorog- Day 4

The Aggression and siege continues in Khorog, the capital town of Gorno-Badakhshan in Tajikistan.

Daily account from the city day 3 and day 4:

Day 3 continued.
Just before dusk I saw off one of the last foreigners to leave town for the Serena Inn which was supposed to be a safe haven for the expats. It was a student from London whom I helped with his bags to get on the main road and even tried to stop a car for him, but all was in vain as most of the vehicles sped past with people packed in them. As the sun set, the soldiers could be seen roaming around, exploring the city’s streets and driveways. A group of unarmed young men loitering at a bus stop and discussing the events of the past couple of days were approached by three armed military officers and were told to leave for their homes in a rude way. The men enquiring the reason refused to obey, asking the military to leave instead as it was a residential area and not a field for military practice. They, however, remained on the road, lining themselves up to stop and check any passing civilian vehicles moving in the direction of the Serena Inn which was still not blocked.

At about 22:20, just as our whole family was about to sleep, first, a few short distant rounds of Kalashnikov shots could be heard then a full cannonade joined in shaking all windows in the house. Terrified children and women panicked and some started crying. Once again, memories of the civil war returned at once.
It is 00:27 and it’s only getting worse. Now, the elders are panicky too and I am forced to stop here. May God help us!

01:00. It seems that they are taking 30 min breaks between their cannonades. The shooting and shelling continued until 04:00.
Day 4.

In the morning people began to look about to discover damages the military inflicted upon peaceful residents. As a result of last night’s attack (as it turned out not on any resistant groups or ‘bandits’ but to insinuate a border violation by imaginary Afghan warlords) three homes were badly damaged and over ten houses had broken windows and bullet marks were seen on the walls and roofs. The inhabitants of these houses, in turn, were harassed by the military in the nights and put against the wall at gun point. A woman in the neighbourhood heard someone noisily walking in her courtyard pulled the curtains away when a soldier shot at her with a pistol. Fortunately, the bullet missed her only sending a piece of broken glass into her face causing a painful wound.
The residents chose representatives to approach this outrage to the local government and went for a meeting with the Minister of Defence who is the mastermind behind this operation and is currently placed within the confines of the Special Forces’ unit. Having met with him the local reps came out in disbelief telling people that the Commander in Chief has gone completely mad, saying that no matter what he is going to continue the assault; even if it will cost more civilian casualties. To the last night’s shelling he simply responded that the troops were provoked by an enemy fire.

As I am writing this a number of military helicopters, one of them carrying missiles, have just flew in to Khorog. The word in the streets is that the operation will resume at tomorrow.
It is now 17:42 and a lot of people are now getting their female family members and the children out of Khorog to take them away from the aggression they themselves will have to face once again...

Khorog Operation-history repeating itself!

Gorno-Badkhshan, the peaceful region of Tajikistan bordered with China, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzistan is on fire again!

CNN reported that, 'fighting erupted Tuesday in an autonomous region of Tajikistan after central government forces moved in on a former opposition warlord believed to be behind the killing of a top security general. At least 12 soldiers and 30 opposition fighters were killed, said a statement from Tajikistan's security service. It said the military operation was continuing'.

Here is a eye-witness account of what happened in Khorog, on day by day basis:

Day 1

This morning, July 24, 2012, as early as 4 am, the city of Khorog was awoken by intensive machine gun fire rounds supported by persistent artillery shelling.  The military invaded a town full of sleeping civilians with armoured personnel carriers and a convoy of trucks carrying heavily armed soldiers.  Dumbfounded residents stepped out of their houses into the streets, which were so quiet and peaceful only a few days ago, to witness what seemed to be an endless chain of khaki-coloured army vehicles, whose occupants stuck out the long points of their guns out the side windows.

At the break of dawn the residents began to notice soldiers on mountain sides all along the main road leading uptown. These turned out to be snipers looking out for any possible targets beneath.  Immediately, people attempted to contact their relatives and friends in parts of the town under attack by mobile phones and the landline only to learn that both were disconnected for an indefinite time (the connection has still not been restored almost 2 days later). In addition, people could not even move about town as it was divided by numerous police and military check-posts blocking access to the hospital and food stores. Even doctors trying to get to their workplace were not let through; instead they had to stand before troops holding guns while the wounded and dead suffered in the hospitals.

They finally did it, the central government delivered on their long-made promise of bringing forces into Khorog in order to do away with the last of the ex-opposition fighters to whom this small mountainous town is home.  Every year, come summer, over the past decade now, everybody hears by word of mouth of a massive military operation to be implemented against groups and individuals who still have arms left in their possession since the times of civil war in the 1990s.

Although the government regarded these people as bandits, for many they remain community leaders who protected them during those years of war from the attempted invasion in 1992.  They stood  then on the mountain passes blocking an army of tanks and helicopters to prevent the horrors of war from coming into their city filled with refugees and thousands of unprotected vulnerable people – elderly, women and children in their midst. And the reason they have held on to those arms is the distrust for the same government that led tanks against their homeland 20 years ago. Talk about history repeating itself!  

Gunfire and artillery shelling continued until midday allowing only a short respite for the people under attack now and then.  The army assaulted residential areas, firing from APCs machine-guns and small cannons. Two helicopters, meanwhile, were circling the area adding to the gloom of the day that started so early around daybreak. Dark clouds formed over Khorog, pouring in rain as if shedding tears of grief for the city’s vulnerable and unarmed residents.  Smoke rose from houses that caught fire in the perfidious attack and even a student dormitory was put to fire; there was no concern for women and children. As all means of communication were cut off, one could only imagine what state the inhabitants were in, whether they were dead or alive.

Two more hours passed, three, then four, the gunfire still persists. By now, however, military trucks, jeeps and ambulances speed up and down carrying their dead and wounded back to the base near the airport. At least 3000 troops were said to have been involved in the assault against possibly only two hundred or so defending Khorog. All in all the battle took 13 hours. Rumours were spread that all the local resistance fighters have been killed and that the attacking army has completed its operation. Crowds of men and women were standing outside their homes all with sad faces while fearfully awaiting further news and recalling the gruesome scenes of genocide that this small minority was forced to live through only two decades ago.

Shortly, the news came that it was in fact the complete opposite of what they had heard. An APC which was charging on the Khlebzavod area was shot down by the resistant groups with a grenade launcher.  The majority of people in the mountains, previously in despair and full of fear resulting from the unexpected assault on their town, while unable to communicate with friends or family over the telephone (which again is still the case), at least had some cause to celebrate that a small number of their brave brothers and sisters, fellow citizens, had stood up against the aggressors to protect them.

As the disproportionately powerful but battered army crept back to their barracks, the multitudes of local inhabitants have come together for a council to decide how to proceed in this trying situation. What is unfortunate is that those people who had tried to let go of the horrid memories of the civil war and had decided to place their faith in the current government, that it would be just and work toward the progress of the country as a whole, have now had their hopes and faith shattered by a regime that decided to show its true colours by attacking its own citizens only because they are a minority groups – but one that will not accept being treated as second-class citizens, whose honest and hard-working individuals had to face profound fear and humiliation once-again. Old wounds heal but leave behind scars, was it wise for the current regime to have torn open those brutal scars and inflict more wounds?

Day 2.

Today, the main road was blocked, this time by the residents who fell long, thick poplar trees and laid them across the road. If the army was trying to restrict people’s movements, now the people were restricting the army’s movements and no more trucks with soldiers could come through.
Unfortunately, even so, civilians were not spared by the aggressing forces. Snipers in position from the previous day targeted and successfully killed civilians in front of their families while they were performing daily tasks such as fetching water or tending to their gardens within their own compounds. It is impossible to imagine the trauma of a child watching his father’s or mother’s life taken by a sniper’s bullet, knowing that his or her parents had done absolutely nothing but remain at home. What do the government forces seek to prove to these children when unity in the country is already so fragile? How will such bitter memories affect them in their lives and how can those scars ever be healed?

My friends have suffered losses and have shared traumatic stories that are so degrading. One lost his cousin, a 46 year old man with 4 children, and the family couldn’t recover his dead body from the house courtyard because the sniper kept shooting at anyone trying to approach the dead body. These snipers are all around; they have completely surrounded the town and are camped out in the mountains. The town is in a deep valley, so it’s easy to watch every inhabitant’s movements outside from the mountains. It’s impossible to walk around without feeling fear in one’s heart.
Nevertheless, later in the day, people had become so fed-up that they gathered in the main square in front of the government buildings, after all the shootings had taken place, and voiced their protest and distrust towards the government. During that time, around noon, the governor came out from the building and said that he had spoken to the president, who had announced a cease-fire, promising that the phone connection would be restored shortly (by 2pm) and all they wanted in return was for the resistance groups to surrender their arms. However, it’s difficult to give up your only means of defending yourself when you have been faced with an unprecedented surprise attack against your people.

The phone connection was never restored and the army announced that they would be remaining in the city. However, my fellow residents were able to finally move around, only to discover dead bodies lying in the streets, the sidewalks, and neighbour’s gardens. The government wanted the roads cleared so that they could send their dead military troops to the airport and back to Dushanbe, the capital. As for the dead civilians, they seemed unconcerned. We carried white flags so that we could bury our dead without being shot. All the foreigners had by then been evacuated, except for a group of 28 cyclists and some students who had no way out of the town. The rest of the evening was quiet but tears were everywhere and panic was written on everyone’s face, for no one was aware of what would happen the next day.

Day 3

At about 7am word had spread in the streets (all telecommunication remains offline) that a new ultimatum had been delivered by the government. It stated that all weapons should be surrendered otherwise a new full-force attack would be launched on Khorog. Once again, the majority of residents remain uninvolved and are innocent bystanders in this conflict. In the meantime, helicopters are hovering over the mountain tops and dropping munitions and food supplies down to the snipers. Almost all food stores still remain closed and those which are open are running out of supplies. More and more, this is beginning to look like a blockade.  Young and old alike took to the streets to protest against this sudden and unprecedented aggression. Now, the main square is full protesters who want the army out of Khorog. The US Embassy is arranging for the evacuation of foreigners who are instructed to walk to the Serena hotel which is about 5 km outside Khorog.   

It’s now 15:30 local time in Khorog and we are awaiting news of what will happen next…