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Turning the Tide

The U.S. has much to do to improve its image among regular Pakistanis

by Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau

Aamir Qureshi—AFP

No matter how hard the United States tries to assist Pakistan’s flood relief and recovery efforts, the country’s negative image doesn’t seem to be improving among regular Pakistanis.

The U.S. is by far the largest and most active donor and deliverer of flood assistance to Pakistan: since the inundations began on July 29, the U.S. has provided some $150 million in humanitarian relief support and an additional $50 million in rehabilitation and technical assistance. By contrast, China has only provided its neighbor with some $20 million in relief aid. The U.S. has delivered tens of thousands of halal meals, scores of prefabricated steel bridges, and its helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft have rescued some 10,000 people and ferried three million pounds of relief supplies to those in need.

Flood victims who have received American aid are doubtlessly grateful. But many of the displaced have not seen—or been given access to—aid, and they remain skeptical of efforts by both the U.S. and the Pakistani government. Some even went so far as to mystically tie the floods to Pakistan’s strategic alliance with America: at least a dozen flood victims interviewed by Newsweek Pakistan in the Nowshera and Charsadda districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa said they believed the floods were divine punishment for Pakistan’s sins. “The friendship with the U.S. is certainly at the top of the list of those sins,” says Said Hafiz Tafhim Rahman, a displaced seller of medicines in Pabbi. Naimatullah Khan, who lives in a camp near Nowshera, echoed those harsh anti-U.S. sentiments. “Allah Almighty will punish us with disasters and natural calamities as long as we are allies of America and its war on terror.”

But most flood victims were much more critical of their own government than of the U.S. Juma Khan, a disabled man now living in a small roadside refugee camp near Nowshera town, wondered how he would ever turn his life around after the raging Kabul River swept away his house and all his family’s possessions. Like millions of other displaced and traumatized Pakistanis, he has been living in a flimsy cloth tent along with his wife and six children for the past month. In the 21 days since Newsweek Pakistan last visited the family, their situation has not improved. They barely make do with two quilts, a couple of pots and pans, and the clothes on their backs. Despite claims by the federal and provincial governments that they are reaching out to flood victims, Juma Khan said he has received no assistance from the government, nor has he even seen a local official. He and his family are being kept alive by the U.K.-registered Ummah Welfare Trust, which provides the family with two meals a day and medicine. “We have gotten nothing from the government, America or Saudi Arabia,” he said. “I’m disabled, have lost my home, and can’t see how my family can survive in the future.”

This complaint of the lack of official government assistance was echoed by most displaced people in the hard-hit Nowshera area. Even political stalwarts of the Awami National Party admit that their party-led provincial government has fallen short of providing even the most basic help to flood victims. “The provincial government just doesn’t have a proper system or plan of action to assist and rehabilitate all these flood victims,” says ANP member and political activist Zahir Khan.

The displaced are so critical of the government’s efforts, in fact, that many say even if American or foreign assistance reached their area, local officials wouldn’t be able to distribute the aid fairly. “The donations and relief goods will be plundered by corrupt and influential people,” says Imtiaz Shah, a primary-school teacher. A man standing nearby, Khan Mohammad, agreed: “Even if we had U.S. aid here, it would not reach us.” Despite their efforts, neither Washington nor Islamabad is winning any popularity points with Pakistanis right now. But these are still early days. Both Pakistani and American officials need to work now to turn the tide.

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