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Pakistan quake rekindles volunteer spirit among citizens
15 November 2005
by David Montero

Volunteer teacher Shazia Arkser, right, checks a student's homework at a makeshift school in Pakistan. (From Burhan Ozbilici/AP)Volunteer teacher Shazia Arkser, right, checks a student's homework at a makeshift school in Pakistan. (From Burhan Ozbilici/AP)
Garhi Dupatta, Pakistan : In these valleys near the epicenter of Pakistan's earthquake, industrialist Nauman Wazir is applying the skills that made him rich in the steel business to push relief aid to quake survivors. Sometimes that means paying money under the table to move mountains - or pieces of mountains at least.

"Being businessmen, we use our own methods, giving money here and there. Anything to get this done," says Mr. Wazir, explaining how he paid out of his own pocket to have landslides cleared so trucks could reach inaccessible areas. "Since the quake I've not been at my job. We've probably lost millions of rupees," he adds, standing in a tent village funded by the Industrial Association of Peshawar, a group he oversees. "But I could not have lived through the trauma had I not done something."

All across Pakistan, efforts to overcome the disaster have been borne by thousands of citizens like Wazir. Their efforts underscore a robust local response that contrasts sharply with relatively tepid donations from the international community.

Pakistan has one of the highest rates of philanthropy in the world, with studies showing that 58 percent of Pakistanis volunteer their time to needy causes, giving nearly $700 million a year in charity. Alms giving is built into the very social and economic fabric of the state, with some $70 million automatically deducted each year from national bank accounts as part of the mandatory Muslim prescription known as zakat.

But observers say that, even by Pakistani standards, the public response has been overwhelming, with relief aid and volunteers immediately pouring into the affected areas from all over the country. It has reinvigorated a civic spirit not seen in some four decades.

Many are translating whatever skills and methods they can to relief work, turning small websites into fundraising platforms, tapping old high school networks for aid, and applying medical training to mend wounds. Those unable to make it to the field are also actively involved, using the Internet and cellphones to donate record amounts of money in novel ways. And people are coming from all over the country to lend a hand.

"There were traffic jams for 1,000 kilometers, from Karachi to the northern areas, the whole length of Pakistan," says Nasreen Khattak, an opposition member of the Provincial Assembly of the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP), one of the hardest hit areas.

Money has also been pouring in. Fundraisers, running the gamut from full-fledged foundations to private individuals, say they raised cash nearly instantaneously after the quake. Wazir, for example, says his association raised about $50,000 within an hour of starting its campaign.

Convenient and novel methods of donating, undertaken by the government, the corporate sector, and individuals, have helped open the cash stream. Many banks have set up special relief accounts, while a campaign coordinated by various telecom companies has generated tens of thousands of dollars, industry insiders estimate, by allowing mobile phone users to send donations through short message service, or SMS.

Then there are the invisible efforts of individuals like Atharresool Kirimi, who runs the website Muskurahat. Mr. Kirimi's small company of five usually develops websites for the private sector, but after the quake, he and his staff turned their site into an online fundraising tool. He says he has managed to collect a total of $3,000, most of it sent to the Presidential Relief Fund, with the remaining used to buy tents and food.

Individual donations like this have so far amounted to a staggering whole, with the President's Relief Fund reporting nearly $100 million already deposited to date, and another $100 million in pledges from NGOs and the corporate sector. "So many deposits have come from ordinary citizens," says Lt. Col. Baseer Malik, a spokesperson for the Federal Relief Commission. The money is still coming, he says.

The internal rate of donations trumps that of the international community, which one month after the disaster had pledged $131 million - around a quarter of the money the UN says is needed.

But Pakistanis are not only giving generously of their money, but also their time.

Tanveer Afzel's tent in Abbottabad, near the quake's epicenter, sees a steady trickle of volunteers. The affable Mr. Afzel, a banker by profession, accepts them graciously, providing rounds of tea and crisp instructions in several languages as to where they can deposit relief goods. After the quake, Afzel and fellow members of the Abbotonian Medical Society, a local high school network, gathered funds and deployed 150 tents on the outskirts of the Ayub Medical center, providing homes and food to 580 discharged patients with nowhere else to go. The full-time staff of six is now assisted by volunteers from across the country, as well as doctors from Cuba and nuns from India. "15,000 truckloads a day were coming upcountry," he says.

The quake relief effort is inspiring a new generation of volunteers. Watching the tragedy on TV was too much to bear, they say, so they sped off to the quake zone. Students and professionals, the trained and untrained, some driven by the call of humanity, others by the call of God, they trudge up mountainsides to deliver goods, to support widowed women, and to retrieve bodies. Most sleep in tents, some on the street.

In all these manifestations of national spirit, observers laud the return of a sense of civic duty not seen since Pakistan's war with India in 1965. They hope the flip side of the tragedy can be a call for common cause, a note of reconciliation.

"It was as if one huge family had been struck. Thousands of families were acting as one," says Ms. Khattak. "This is coming at a time when the national spirit will reinforce the country's unity."