Friday, October 28, 2005

Tents and relief supplies donated by international charities for survivors of a deadly earthquake in Pakistan-administered Kashmir are being hoarded by local officials, said human rights groups and volunteers working in the stricken region.

The charges come with the onset of the freezing Himalayan winter, when shelter can mean the difference between life and death for hundreds of thousands of families left homeless.

Tents and supplies are being hoarded to “avoid problems when senior military and civilian officials demand supplies,” the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report issued after a visit to Muzaffarabad.

The human rights group said one Pakistani official told its workers that he would lose his job if he handed out the tents. The civilian officials were working under the supervision of the military, the report said.

A spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington denied the report.

“It is impossible that anyone would do anything to exploit this tragedy. … It is a situation in which even a man with a hard heart would weep when confronted with the devastation,” he said.

However, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and local nongovernmental organizations have backed up charges of hoarding.

Asma Jahangir, chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told Human Rights Watch, “Tents are now the most important commodity in Kashmir, but they are being used for power and patronage by military and civilian authorities that control the territory.”

On a recent visit to Muzaffarabad, Ms. Jahangir and her team were informed of an acute shortage of shelter.

“They observed that in some cases, tents were stored in government warehouses, but were not being distributed,” the Pakistani commission said.

“According to the authorities, these were kept for future emergencies. At the same time, relief delivery was almost absent in the cities.”

Syed Shamsuddin, coordinator for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said, “The powerful are getting the most and hoarding for the future. … It’s a general practice, so people can do political favors.”

The Pakistani army was severely hit by the quake. Many troops were deployed along the Line of Control, which is situated close to the epicenter of the quake and divides Pakistan from India.

Mohammed Zia-ur-Rehman, chief executive of Awaaz Center for Development Services Foundation in Islamabad, said that in the first few days after the quake, the army was “busy helping themselves.”

Now, he said, the army is “grabbing all the relief material that is being brought in by local charities and foreign-aid groups and is putting their stamps on it before handing it out to make it look like the army is helping the people.”

“These people are playing politics with aid,” Mr. Zia-ur-Rehman said.

The Oct. 8 earthquake has killed at least 54,000 and left more than 3 million people homeless.

After the disaster, international aid poured in.

The United States’ initial $50 million relief package for Pakistan included food, water, medical supplies, blankets, tents and humanitarian assistance personnel.

Arisa Sharmin, a spokeswoman for CARE in Pakistan, said the tent shortage had forced many people to take shelter amid the rubble of buildings devastated by the quake.

“They are living in the ruins of their homes … which is very risky, as there have been aftershocks following the earthquake, and we are concerned these people’s lives are at stake,” Ms. Sharmin said. “The situation is terrible.”

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