Who feels the Earthquake?
Date: Thursday, July 13 @ 17:56:09 UTC
by Joey Clarke
So there was an earthquake in Pakistan in October 2005. TIME Magazine just reminded me. They also told me some numbers: 80,000 people died. Hard to imagine for someone who has spent his life in small islands. Unless I think in terms of all the people in my part of Kingston: all of Liguanea, Upper Mountainview, New Kingston and Beverly Hills, plus Gordon Town to boot. All dead within minutes. Or, from the Port-of-Spain years: Belmont/St Ann's, and most of the East-West Corridor - wiped out. Or, say, all of Bridgetown, Barbados... or, everybody in St Lucia, plus ten or so thousand from Martinique or St Vincent.
Strange how I can consider all those dead so coldly when I think in terms of number... maybe I should think in terms of one person: my friend, my relative, my colleague... the person I see every day. Plus the person I don't see so often, the person I run in to now and then, and the person I sometimes notice on my way from A to B. All such persons (plus 79,000 or so more who are part of the lives of others) suddenly killed en masse... it's too much. I don't know if I can ever grasp the scale of a tragedy like that; and I don't even know if it would be any clearer if I had happened to be tooling around Kashmir last October. I suspect that - like the people I saw in the photos - I would be too desperate about my own wellbeing to count beyond myself, and my immediate circle. The TIME article prompted me to start writing, but it wasn't because of the dead, nor even of the 3 million homeless (consider all Jamaica and all Trinidad, but only the lucky ones sleeping in camps), nor - though it impressed me - the 30,000 tons of food (more than I'm likely to eat in the next 20 years) that has been parachuted into the area.
Still reeling from the very idea of such a calamity, I'm not even going to turn a suspicious eye on the governments of Pakistan and the donor countries (US, Germany, Australia) and what their motivation could be. I'm not even going to quibble the figures. Let's say there could be a variance of up to 60% on any or all of the numbers given above. It's still an incredibly awful scene, and it still isn't what got my pen twirling.
"...the worst natural disaster in Pakistan's history." That was how TIME described it. And, I suppose, you could say it was the worst disaster in that part of the world since 1948, when the people of a given region including some of Kashmir began paying their taxes a certain way and numbering themselves among those labelled "Pakistani". That part of Kashmir, although so many people live there, is very remote, and the landscape is very forbidding. From what I have picked up, there are not many big cities in those parts (not by big-country standards anyway - there are communities of 50,000-plus), and many of the people live in a manner not so different from how their ancestors lived - in the same general area - when the Word of the Prophet reached Kashmir 1,100 years ago. And those ancestors had already been there for at least another three or four thousand years (my spur-of-the-memory estimate).
I would be surprised to learn that there have not been any 7.5-level earthquakes in Kashmir for the last 5,000 years; isn't that whole part of Asia pretty volcanic and quake-prone? There have probably been similar horrors in the last 500 years. Pre-Pakistan, we're talking less than a generation. Maybe there were even 20th-Century quakes that didn't enter TIME's cursory reckoning.
So my question is: who had an earthquake? "Pakistan"? Or three million people who live in the hills? And what did they do before there were helicopters and parachutes laden with food and tents? No doubt survival was much harder, but they survived - they're still there.
Of course I believe in the well-fed neighbour helping when someone gets a blow, and give props to the governments who gave. And, although I hear that there are still many not getting help (hence TIME's article), I have a feeling that many an airlifted tent and plastic water tank will continue to dot the Kashmiri landscape as long as those nomadic folks can get use out of them. I also imagine - and hope - that the food sent was appropriate, and not dumped chocolates and pork rinds, and that the wrappers will not result in an environmental problem. I even hope (eternal optimist) that the tensions in the area will shrink - even for a while - in the face of common misfortune.
But, the question remains - what is this "Pakistan" that is supposed to be hurting? General Musharraff and his Government? I doubt it, and hope that they are involved in the recovery. But the photos I saw remind me of what this is really about. It was hard to be sure of ages; the woman with small children could have been 28 or 40, the slim boy could have been 20 or 11. We have become so inured to pictures of suffering that the expressions are not new. But this time for some reason I noticed how much the chin of a young boy resembled that of my colleague's little daughter. How a woman's eyes and hands - all you could see of her - seemed to say so much. Or how the bearded man's glance at the camera evoked the memory of a friend. Each face belongs to somebody in particular, somebody who had to get food or find a bed after the picture was taken. Somebody who is probably loved by other persons. Somebody who had experienced one of the most frightening, painful, distressing experiences on offer, having lost who knows what (or who), and lived who knows how for almost a year. Are these the faces of "Pakistan"?
I don't really have an answer, just a bunch of thoughts. For me, it should always be people - individuals - that guide my thinking; the Governments are a temporary matter, and in this case there are probably millions who experience little change, no matter who claims to be in charge. Like people in the Kashmir who have lived simply off the land for time out of mind. War in their region, and environmental irresponsibility on the part of many Governments, may threaten their way of life. I wonder which in the long run will threaten more, the earthquake last year or the aid and its consequences.
A person is so much beyond nationality that it's almost beyond saying it. And yet, media-speak generalises us in a way that might make it necessary to remember ourselves. "Pakistan" will remain as long as there are enough people behind it. There is massive individual human suffering, and that is what should claim our attention. It's too easy to distance ourselves by putting on a label; we are all, essentially, the same, and I neither gain from another's misfortune, nor am I left alone by it.
That's because, in a similar situation, what happened to any of those people (or those in any of the other pictures of suffering in Rwanda, Indonesia, or Louisiana), would happen the same to me. If a mountain fell on me, I would almost cetainly die. If I alone survived my family, I would feel pretty much the same as those people look. If all of my goods were destroyed, I too would have a lost expression. And if such a thing happened to my aunt, or my dentist, or my neighbour, or the lady at the gas station, I would hope not only to feel compassion, but to offer appropriate assistance, if i could.
Where this train of thought gets me is this: at what point do I cease being merely a man, and begin to be a Jamaican man. I become the latter, I presume, when I travel, or vote, or demand fair prices in resort towns. The rest of the time, I am just me. And if God/Nature should some day treat me like the people in the magazine, what am I then? Again, my hope: to remain me. Because then, i'll remember that I have needed to rebuild before, and have helped others rebuild, and can do it again. But trust me, if free food, blankets and whatever are available when I have none, I will certainly want to claim my share.
Which reminds me: check roof... stock food... store water... buy batteries... maintain vehicle...
Reference: Newsweek Magazine, July 3-10, 2006