by Ashfaq Yusufzai
(IPS) -- It is a safe bet that at least some of the $5.8 billion worth of relief that the world has pledged for the quake-ravaged areas of northern Pakistan will pass through the hands of several banned jihadi militant groups that have found new legitimacy in humanitarian work.
While people living in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), as the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir is officially known, and the adjacent North West Frontier Province (NWFP) had grown wary of the militant outfits, their efficiency and promptness in providing relief after the Oct. 8 earthquake has been winning hearts and minds.
"We commend them (militants) because they were the ones who reached here even before the army. They recovered the dead bodies and pulled hundreds of children from the debris of collapsed school buildings,' said Gul Zameer, a Balakot-based health worker, when asked about the role of Jamaatud Dawa, the parent organization of the banned militant outfit Lashkar-e-Toiba (Soldiers of God).
"Our organization happened to be the first to establish relief and medical camps in the quake-hit areas,' Salman Shahid, chief of Jamaatud Dawa (JD), told IPS.
Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has admitted publicly that Ô'an administrative vacuum created by the civil administration (immediately after the earthquake) has thus been filled by militant organizations."
Interestingly, these outfits count as members trained health workers, including doctors and whose services they were able to summon in establishing field hospitals in Kashmir and the NWFP.
Besides the army, the militant outfits, long based in these Himalayan tracts sandwiched between Afghanistan and Indian-administered Kashmir, are the only entities capable of translating relief and rehabilitation funds into real benefits for the victims.
Said Shahid: Ô'We have operated upon some 700 quake victims for fractured limbs in Kashmir alone and have begun a massive reconstruction plan that includes the building of 400 mosques, 17,000 homes and 121 schools.'
Shahid's group has also set up mobile hospitals, established tented villages and is building an orphanage on land acquired close to Rawalpindi, Pakistan's military hub.
A fear expressed by some is that the militants could turn the orphans into as recruits -- but for now, the main worry is still the safety of the large number of child survivors that have nowhere else to turn.
Besides the hospitals and orphanages, the JD has also been distributing essentials, ranging from crutches for the crippled, tents and hard cash.
Prodded by Washington, the Lashkar-e-Toiba was banned by the Pakistani Government in 2002 but the JD has continued to operate as a charitable organization, although it too has been on the government's watch list of militant organizations.
The response of other major militant groups, such as the Al-Badr Mujahideen, Harkatul Mujahideen (HM) and smaller organizations have also come in for widespread praise.
More than a hundred HM activists had reached Balakot an hour after the calamity hit the region, recalled Omar Raees, a schoolteacher.
"It was because of their work that hundreds of dead bodies could be retrieved and the lives of many schoolgirls could be saved,' said Raees, who lost 300 of his colleagues.
Organizations like the Jamaat-e-Islami's Al-Khidmat Welfare Society (AKWS) has tapped on the resources of HM to Ô'assess the food needs of the quake survivors, who are then given foodstuff at the distribution points," said an operative.
Ô'Some 10,000 volunteers, including doctors, were deployed in the towns and cities of Kashmir and NWFP in the first three days but we are now concentrating on the remote and inaccessible areas,' said the JD chief.
"Only from Peshawar city, we have sent about 22 trucks loaded with relief goods, including blankets, medicines and quilts. The quantum of such goods sent from across the country runs into thousands of trucks,' said Jamal, who supervises a Peshawar-based camp of the Dawa.
It was only after Pakistan hosted an international donors meet in Islamabad on Nov. 19 , where 5.8 billion dollars was pledged, that there was any hope of preventing more deaths as winter set in, although the risks are far from over and the money yet to come in.
Last week, the United Nations was compelled to remind donors, in a statement, that Ô'tens of thousands of earthquake survivors face death, hunger and disease, as well as prolonged displacement and homelessness.'
"Even in the face of such generosity, the risk of a second disaster looms large," the UN statement said. Ô'In order to save lives today, these pledges must be fulfilled immediately."
In the meantime, at least a part of the desperately needed funds is being collected by the militant groups, through the special camps they set up in cities like Balakot and Muzaffarabad, capital of AJK.
"Only the donation-collecting camps set up by the militant organizations are still aggressively engaged in the raising of funds,' Jamal said, adding that they performed duties at such camps on rotation basis.
The only requirement for people assigned supervisory tasks at the fund-raising camps was that they be honest, said Jamal.
"We take no salary, because we want to please almighty Allah by helping the needy people in trying times,' the bearded 22-year-old said.
"We would be running our activities in the affected areas till the completion of reconstruction process, because we believe the people who are in distress require our help,' he adds.
Jammat-e-Islami, part of the coalition that runs the government in NWFP, has been sending medical teams from the government-run hospitals under the supervision of AKWS, mainly because army and authorities were missing from the scene.
"We had reached NWFP on Oct. 10, where we established emergency medical camps. Not only the patients were examined there, but they were also given food,' said Mohammad Ajmal, a Peshawar-based doctor.
He said that AKWS had also been providing assistance to the medical teams of doctors from country and abroad by establishing camps for them in the quake-ravaged areas of NWFP and Kashmir.
"We are ready to render any sacrifice if called upon by the JD. These people have responded to the tragedy more swiftly than the government. We cannot forget the way they worked,' a group of quake survivors at a relief camp told IPS in Balakot.
"There is no bar on the activities of the militant outfits as long as they serve a humanitarian purpose,' said Major Gen. Shaukat Sultan, Director-General of Inter-Services Public Relations.
Soon after the earthquake that measured 7.6 on the Richter scale, Pakistanis, including thousands of volunteers, had begun collecting donations and rushing to the troubled spots to see how they could help.
However, voluntary activities soon lost steam, especially because of a lack of funds and coordination and it was only the militant organizations that could maintain the momentum of relief activity.
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