Thursday, September 2, 2010

Tom, Dick and Haris JatoiKhanChaudhary

They all arrived on three different dates to the affected area in Pakistan's North. The U.N had characterized it as a greater catastrophe than the Tsunami, than the Haiti fiasco and even greater than the earthquake that took many lives here: nobody was missing the flood (action).

Internships with U.N stamps are gold. "Emergency Relief Provision" under U.N jurisdiction is a whole new level of exaggerated skill in terms of risk-assessment, quick thinking, technical field experience and all the other descriptions that one validates their experiences with. Ironically, the very same practice was employed by many to attain a position in this mobilization.

Thomas Ó Banain, Dick Donato and Haris JatoiKhanChaudhary were to be a part of Bravo team.

Dick was an Italian-American from Maryland. He succumbed to dysentery by drinking the local tap-water and went home. The details of his return journey are uneventful.

Thomas arrived in Peshawar via a PIA flight. He arrived three days later than the reporting time because his ticket was the cheapest and earliest "on-chance" reservation. He had arrived in Lahore via a KLM flight from Belfast. Haris paid full fare two days in advance and reached on the scheduled reporting day.

Because Haris arrived on time, he travelled in the white U.N Hilux to take him to Mansehra along with other personnel scheduled for transport. Thomas's instructions were to go to the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar and wait for two days for the next U.N convoy to depart to Mansehra. But that would mean he would miss his briefing.

In P.C's lobby he met plenty of people fascinated by his Irish accent which was so familiar and yet so new to them. He was included into random conversations as an insider about things ranging from Zionist Conspiracies in the World Bank, the Illuminati causing natural disasters and how much more money Pakistan needed. He was only 19. They were mostly journalists. The masses looked to them for the truth. He just wanted to get to Mansehra within the next 8 hours.

Haris looked for other people from anywhere near Aitchison at base-camp.

A porter had some information for Thomas. He was very discouraging but in honesty told Thomas of one private relief truck heading towards Mansehra that evening. An excessively white-boy travelling through these parts was everyone's liability and concern. Thomas weighed his options. He had come from too far away for there to be any severe consequences for insubordination. He had come from too far away to risk it. He had come from too far away to not do anything worthwhile. A CNN cameraman encouraged it and advised that dollars ensured the loyalty of the truckers. They had all done it and it would be taking away a part of Pakistan with him. Such fuss over a truck ride.

U.N issue field laptops are water and shock resistant. A Thuraya Sat-Phone would allow constant connectivity. Maps were a necessity despite the GPS tracking being hundred percent functional 24/7. Haris wondered if he would get to keep the gear afterwards. Perhaps it would compromise U.N intelligence for them to do so or he envisioned. Every bit of information that he would type in would be stored into a mainframe. "Information is power" he kept mumbling as he explored the functions.

Doodh patti was excellent in taste but Thomas lasted only 15 minutes after drinking it. The warm dairy inside his stomach and the bumpy road lulled him to sleep.

Pakistan posed an unprecedented challenge for the U.N and the world. The needs outwitted the preset protocol. Those in UNDP did not have the means in place in Pakistan to over-come terrain. The terrain of Pakistan over-came UNICEF. Resources were depleted for HCR. Man-power was too scattered for systematic functioning. But hey, this was Pakistan. Fuck procedure. It had always been the case in the Afghan refugee crisis and the earthquake that the mandates of UN bodies kept blurring. The country, by human and divine intervention, just did not allow for regulations to be held in place. Haris was to become part of many cells that could provide light rescue assistance and undertake reconnaissance. Logistical support for all Aid would be handled according to the information they provided.

Thomas's second warm meal since he arrived in Pakistan was given to him at 11 O' Clock in the night. His identification documents were sealed in a plastic casing from which rain drops bounced off into his eyes. The senior field supervising officer had had too tiring of a day to make a big deal out of the matter. He slept in a pop-up tent.

The morning was dark, the day ahead was long. They woke up at 4 in the morning. Provisions of fruit and biscuits served as breakfast. Thomas craved doodh patti. Haris sprinkled sugar over fresh peaches and water-melon. 'Carbs were good' echoed in the camp. Thomas asked Haris to pass him a napkin.

Land-slides prevented the use of many patches of roads. Soon the base-camp would be isolated. The plan was for teams disperse and to diffuse into different base-camps. Bravo team had to take a Southern route towards Abbotabad. This was an extreme and desperate measure. Partially to ensure that they functioned as they went down but mainly to get the novice volunteers to a safe destination...there was liability.

Thomas and Haris loaded their U.N issue gear into the car. They would complete only 20 km of their journey in it. The remaining 30 or more would have to be hiked. Their slow movement would not be an issue; they had to collect information anyway.

The Irish plains were not as thick and dense as these mountains but the obstacles excited Thomas. To Haris, this area was as alien as it was to Thomas. His vacations were restricted to watching concerts in Dubai and buying sneakers in Bangkok. But this was nobody's vacation. Their team leader had a hard time acting as babysitter, regardless of how hard Thomas and Haris roughed it.

They reached a fork in the valley. A sheep herder limped towards them. Thomas seized his first chance to assist. The language barrier prevented him from doing anything.
'You don't speak his language?' he asked Haris.
'No I don't'.
'But he lives in your neighboring province!'
'Well thats ignorant. His mother tongue and mine are two very different things.'
Their team leader intervened: 'Actually if he's from this area he's speaking Hindko which is not that different from Punjabi.'

Salim was a Balochi medical volunteer in their team. His efforts and Urdu allowed them to learn that the remnants of a now destroyed village were now locked in between a mudslide and dead livestock. It bothered Thomas that they had proved so useless at the first opportunity. Haris would be credited with making the distress call with the Thuraya and even relaying the information back to HQ. They now knew that where such a village existed and the route they had taken would soon be over-whelmed by mudslides and another route would be required. Army and NGO workers would be privy to this info. All thanks to Haris typing it up. Thomas felt insignificant but in no way envious.

The oxygen difference kicks in a lot faster when you are hiking. The youngest members of Bravo team learned that the hard way. They were not allowed the three day period for their respiratory system to grow accustomed to the altitude.

To go up the slopes of Kakul tested their determination in more ways than one. The army base was to be their lodging for the next few days. And the Pakistan army was a generous host to the U.N.

Mosquitoes dominated the veranda to their rooms. It gave Haris goosebumps to watch the thousands clustered in swarms.

Thomas left his shoes outside as Haris tracked mud onto the carpet. I'm lying. Neither of them is that stupid.

Thomas stretched before entering his bed. It helps to wake up early.
'Lahore is a nice place to live in?'
'Yes, it is. Never a dull moment there.'
'Culture capital of Pakistan?'
'You read that in the in-flight magazine?'
'Yeah, you could say that.'
Haris sat up and turned on a bed-side lamp.
'Wonder if the village will have received help by now.'
Thomas sat up as well. 'You can check you know.'
The realization hit Haris and he bounded off the bed to grab the laptop.
'There is no progress report on that village. The GPS has it marked as "distress"...'
'Land slides. They cant risk it.'
They switched the light back off.
'You did good. Don't worry.'
'I guess I did.'
'A flood can be this bad huh?'
'First one I've seen this closely.'
'Never this bad in a century..'
'Who warming..'
Thomas sat hearing this.
'Yeah, thats what everyone is saying.'
'Its going to take a lot of money to fix this.'
'Money and time. Years.'
'But they're dying of cholera and pnemonia in the mean time."
'Starvation... Whats it like... growing up in a third- I mean developing country..?'
'Bomb blasts every day. Corruption. Lack of education. The works.'
'Ever lost anyone?'
'So you have a restricted paranoid life?'
'Hell no.'
'I thought there were fundamentalists at every corner.'
'Yes there are.'
'Have you ever had typhoid or malaria?'
'Chicken pox.'
'Do you go to a state-run school?'
'Domestic staff?'
'How many servants in your house mate?'
'Are you rich?'
'I suppose. But the middle class families in Pakistan have atleast two servants too.'
'You're joking?'
'No. Extremely cheap labour.'
'So it is in China. No servants for anybody mate.'
'Well I come from a political family.'
'Thats a good thing?'
'Why? Why wouldn't it be?'
'I don't know. So honestly speaking how much do the rich give?'
'We're a charitable country. We just are; regardless of everything they say.'
'You have a ridiculous concentration of wealth my frieind.'
'Nothing to challenge the status quo my friend. Nobody is to touch the sugar mills and no taxes on sugar. But yes, we give.'
'Do you believe american agents are actively conspiring within your country?'
'You'd be surprised by how true that is.'
'The flood is an Illuminati engineered disaster by means of satellite bursts?'
'No I think its to purge out the terrorists in the valleys.'
'You're shitting me.'
'Think about it.'
'Hate the terrorists enough to withstand this? Not that you're doing the suffering.'
'Maybe its a wake-up call. We've had plenty of those I suppose. Maybe its the intervention.'
'Yeah good luck with that.'
'I come from a political family. We're targets of terrorism. My existence is not safe with them staying alive.'
'My family was killed by the IRA.'
'Irish freedom fighters?'
'No they became a political party. Keep up with the times.'
'Sorry. Very sorry.'
'My father was courier for Denis Donaldson. He was marked for execution by Sinn Fein. My mother too.'
'I'm very sorry.'
'Don't be.'
'Wow, so thats a what a political family can be like?'
'He was neutral. Just a courier.'
'Here you can't serve tea without political affiliation.'
'Charity, relief.'
Thomas sat up: 'There are good people here who deserve better.'
'People get what they go get for themselves.'
'Nobody can do anything horrible enough to reap this. A nation without imperialistic tendencies, exploitative designs and I don't know...North Korea maybe...I don't see evil...Makes sense?'
'No it doesn't.'
Thomas lay back down: 'I guess it doesn't.'
'I thought a disaster was supposed to show us we weren't a world apart.'
'Perhaps we are.'

The next morning Haris awoke to light from the windows. No less than a billion birds were frantically chirping. So early. He sat at the edge of his bed and saw Thomas sitting on the floor. Youtube was streaming a video of a crowd senselessly beating two males. Their screams came in intervals to the delay in the buffering. Sialkot.

They didn't speak a word as they hiked to Abbotabad.

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