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Hope in Hell
Changing the way we deal with disasters.


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This weekend’s devastating earthquake in northern Pakistan reminds us once again of Mother Nature’s overpowering capacity to humble mankind. That the battered people of Kashmir–some of the most beautiful and peace loving on Earth–were forced to accept the loss of everything material during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of sacrifice, seemed incomprehensibly unjust.

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But from every injustice and tragedy also arises opportunity to correct what has gone wrong before. This is one time the opportunity should not be lost. There is a global need to correct how governments manage humanitarian crises caused by natural disasters; there is a regional need for Pakistan and India to engage each other in a way that for once genuinely benefits the people of Kashmir by using the humanitarian crisis as the face-saving cover to resolve their half-century old feud; there is an opportunity nationally for Pakistan’s government to redefine its commitment to provide for its disaffected citizens, and there is a grand opportunity for America to redefine itself as the caring and supportive nation it has always been, but that nobody in the Muslim world seems to see.

Regional Rebuilding

At a national level, Pakistan is faced with a stark choice: It can buckle in the face of adversity and disintegrate in a cacophony of blame and counter-blame for who didn’t do what when, or it can muster the courage to rebuild the lives of the very people its politicians, armed forces, and mullahs have so often stated are the defining essence of their country’s existence. I’m betting on the latter to happen.

But rising up to the challenge will only be possible if President Pervez Musharraf inspires his countrymen by example as he first cares for and then leads the nation to rebuild the shattered lives of its citizens. He should consider, for example, taking up temporary residence in the devastated areas and showing that he is prepared to sacrifice his own conveniences just as much as those who have lost everything to help them dig their loved ones out. And if the man and woman on Muzzafarabad’s streets yell at him, or curse the army for not doing enough–just listen and swallow it for the sake of their dignity. He must then compassionately and with great humility direct, like the military commander he is, the rebuilding of their homes, schools, mosques, and hospitals. No more foreign trips, no more photo ops with visiting dignitaries, no more television interviews. Just hard-nosed, grit-your-teeth work until the job is done. That’s the leader he was when he was forced into power six years ago, that’s the leader he should return to being now.

At a regional level, he has already made a good start by accepting India’s helping hand. He should take that a step further by inviting India’s prime minister to come across the battered Peace Bridge and visit Pakistani-controlled Kashmir when the ground is more stable so the Indian leader can console Muzzafarabad’s residents in person. What better way to seal the confidence of two nations that their leaders care more about people than their nuclear weapons and blustering politicians, and are committed to finding a politically acceptable framework for settling their differences over Kashmir?

Then he should send his finance wizard of a prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, to every Arab country whose princes come and enjoy Pakistan’s countryside for hunting and falconry and ask them to cough up the cash needed to pay for the reconstruction effort. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, particular favorites of Pakistan’s culture, are rich enough and stand to benefit globally for their largesse both inside the Muslim world as well as on the international stage. Japan and China can provide the heavy machinery and skilled work forces to complete the tasks efficiently and without political hyperbole.

America’s Helping Hand

There’s a huge opportunity in this tragedy for us Americans as well. The Muslim world perceives us today, rightly or wrongly, as an arrogant nation of people adamantly opposed to Islam’s ideological and philosophical grounding, and that we are prepared to go to any military extent necessary to prove we are right. Against the terrorists, you bet we will, and we should. Rational Islam needs to understand why that is necessary and help us battle their demons from within.

But as a fiercely loyal and patriotic American of the Islamic faith, I know we are not entirely without blame in the way we are characterized. And I also know that we don’t do enough to reach out in a way that touches the hearts and minds of Muslims where it matters. Can anyone honestly say, after watching the highly intelligent faces of the young men and women who lost their children and everything they ever had telling us their stories on TV for the past 72 hours that they wouldn’t respond to us if we reached across an ocean to help make them whole again? Let’s take the game directly to the people who matter rather than letting their mullahs and fanatics define it for us.

Let us not be known as a people who offer paltry sums of money and handouts that nobody can practically use. Let’s marshal our resources in a different way to help Pakistan rebuild the lives of its Kashmiri citizens–as one people of a civilization to another, with respect and dignity that honors their sacrifices. President Bush should call on the mayors of a representative list of major cities across the United States to each adopt one small village or town in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir in order to help restore the public school systems, hospitals, and pharmacies that provide critical services to ordinary citizens.

For a country slightly more than the size of Texas, it should not be difficult to gather and infuse enough private American money raised by raffles, walkathons and yard sales to put food, water, tents, cots, cribs, books, pencils, paper, and maybe even some willing and adventurous American schoolteachers when the time is right into Pakistan to help the country resuscitate its people.

Sister-city mayors could commission fundraising drives to buy hospital supplies, or offer rotating missions of doctors and nurses to staff temporary medical clinics so that ordinary Pakistanis could see and feel the benefits of the efforts made by their American benefactors. All of this could be done through existing non-governmental organization frameworks, or by Washington simply exempting taxes on the moneys and supplies officially collected on a city-by-city basis, and enabling the travel of those who want to go abroad to help.

Finally, we need to rethink at a global level how we manage natural disasters. With over 300,000 lives lost and tens of billions in damage done from three natural disasters in the past twelve months, the time has come to create a multinational Natural Disaster Emergency Management Organization (NEMO) that is capable of rapid response in the case of any natural disaster, no matter where it occurs. Reserves of heavy machinery and equipment (bulldozers, cranes, tractors, etc), the necessary transportation to get this equipment on site (like heavy-lift helicopters), temporary shelters, cots, blankets, storable foodstuffs, and fresh water supplies need to be kept on demand at enough strategically located points around the world that within hours, not days, the right equipment and personnel would be at the scene of a disaster. Sort of like an American nuclear bunker, but for humanitarian-relief purposes.

Management of these assets could reside with existing regional command and control facilities, like NATO. The assets could be paid for on a GDP ratio basis that puts the burden on rich countries over time to insure there is a ready pool of assets for on-demand situations like earthquakes and tsunamis. With enough legislative groundwork, multinational companies, like Caterpillar and John Deere, or Mitsubishi and Daewoo, could be granted tax breaks for contributing assets to these global pools. And all those who contribute, even poor nations, would be asked to never hesitate in letting the assets be used, when needed, even in New Orleans or Miami when a hurricane strikes.

If we can replenish our military assets to fight wars against terrorists, we can do the same to insure the livelihoods of men, women and children, no matter their creed, color, religious beliefs or ethnicities, to safeguard mankind from the wrath of nature.

I’ll never forget the treacherous mountainside roads, much of which were partially washed out on the best of days, as I drove up to Muzzafarabad to meet the Kashmiri militant leader Sayed Salahuddin in the winter of 2001 as we negotiated the final steps of a comprehensive ceasefire that brought peace to people who had known little else than conflict for 50 years. These are people who want peace and desperately want to live in the dignity of whatever conditions God has given them. It is time that we all together help them do just that.

Mansoor Ijaz, chairman of Crescent Investment Management in New York and an American of Pakistani ancestry, co-authored the blueprint for a ceasefire of hostilities in Kashmir between Muslim militants and Indian security forces in the summer of 2000.



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