Andreas Whittam Smith: An earthquake relief effort that should shame us

The most valuable help rich countries can give is helicopters. Britain has not provided a single one
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The Independent Online

In addition, five personnel from the UK Fire Service are working in Muzaffarabad. We have sent a couple of minibuses from Islamabad. The Government has also despatched tents, tarpaulins, sleeping mats, blankets, jerry cans and 3,150 Halal rations and water.

Nothing else. Nothing special. No helicopters, though we are employing them in Afghanistan and Iraq. The British search and rescue teams we hear about come from a British charity, Rapid-UK. Oh, I am forgetting something. The Prime Minister, Mr Blair, made a statement.

He said: "I should like to pass on our condolences to the families of those who have lost loved ones in this tragedy. We are immensely proud of our close ties to Pakistan, made even closer by the large population of British citizens who trace their origins to the Kashmir region. Such ties make the growing number of casualties even harder to bear."

In its meretricious nature, the statement is very Blair. Even Mr Bush gave Mr Blair a lesson. For the US President visited the Pakistan embassy in Washington on Friday to express his "deepest condolences" over the devastating earthquake that took such a heavy toll of life. He signed the condolence book. He had previously asked the deputy chief of the mission at the Pakistan embassy, Mohammad Sadiq - the ambassador being away - to come to the White House to brief him personally.

These actions, omitted by Mr Blair, even if largely ceremonial, are appreciated. A Pakistan newspaper recently headed its leading article: 'Thank you, Mr Bush'. And another editorial noted that the three words "God bless America" were spontaneously uttered by a badly wounded victim in Balakot when he was put in a giant American helicopter for evacuation. "These words sum up the feelings of the entire nation, especially the earthquake victims who could not be moved to hospitals for want of logistic support," the newspaper added.

The British Government does not seem to have understood that the Pakistan earthquake disaster is considerably worse than last year's tsunami in terms of the number of people made homeless and the extent of destruction to infrastructure. According to the World Health Organisation, the earthquake rendered 2.5 million people homeless as against 1.5 million by the tsunami.

The region, too, presents much greater obstacles for rescue teams than the islands of the Indian Ocean. When I first visited the area some years ago, I was struck by the fact that so many families still lived high up in the mountains. You could reach them only by walking and by using rope bridges to cross turbulent rivers. The same terrain in Europe was deserted many generations ago. Now winter approaches and snow is beginning to dust the mountain slopes.

That is why the most valuable help that rich Western countries can provide is helicopters. Yet as far as I can see, Britain has not provided a single one. The UN relief chief, Jan Egeland, told reporters that the sheer number of survivors remaining cut off from major towns had created a desperate situation.

According to him, the race against the clock could be lost if enough helicopters were not urgently made available to drop supplies and extract the injured.

Pakistan has about 30 helicopters of its own; eight were provided by the US initially, with two more shifted after the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, had a meeting with the Pakistan President. Afghanistan has lent its total serviceable fleet of four. Germany and Japan have given two each. The relief agencies maintain that at least three times these 48 are needed.

There are obvious reasons why Britain should be doing much more. One is the scale of the disaster. Some 38,000 people have been killed. A further 62,000 have been injured. The big hospitals in Islamabad and Rawalpindi have treated 4,000 victims between them.

Apart from lending helicopters, what else might we have done that would have been useful? At a guess, we could have despatched field hospitals. In any case, a British minister should have gone to Pakistan to show solidarity and to learn about how best to help.

Another reason for going far beyond the conventional response is because it happened in Pakistan, a member of the Commonwealth, and home to tens of thousands of relatives of British citizens.

This is a "kith and kin" emergency. Yet for the life of me, I cannot find that the British response has been any more than routine. Without the ties that bind us, for instance, Germany and Japan, have done just as much.

The final reason is that the victims are Muslims. We invade Muslim countries, we kill thousands of people in Muslim countries, we harass Muslims in our own country. Yet when the opportunity arises to show compassion, to pick up the wounded, to hold out a hand, to care for the sick, our Government does the minimum and that is that. What did Mr Blair say? "Such ties make the growing number of casualties even harder to bear." Crocodile tears.