The world is a funny place, the media is fickle.
They focus on a natural disaster and the oohs and aaahhhs of the tragedy when they’re in the middle of the throes of it and, like the media, conveniently forget it ever happened when the next set of bad news rears up from another part of the world.
It was described as a slow tsunami by Ban Ki Moon, the UN secretary-general, and the Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie recently visited the country to keep the plight of the victims in the limelight hoping international help would not wane.
According to some sources, Jolie was upset at the expensive lifestyle Pakistani politicians enjoyed and the lavish banquet laid out in her honour when millions were destitute and hungry across the country.
Yet nearly three months on where is the aid effort and where is it being concentrated?
I can only speak about what I have seen and the stories I have been told by those affected as I returned to North West Pakistan and the Swat Valley.
It’s now early October. The sun was out as we drove along the broken roads having turned north from Peshawar. Pakistan basking in, ironically, an Indian summer. The roads leading to the region busy with the usual sights of traffic chaos, bustling bazaars and military checkposts.
As we come closer to the principal city of Mingora, progress though small, has been made and there’s a significant impact on the area. The main Chakdara bridge has been rebuilt, the missing section reconstructed by the military, a scene repeated across the River Swat.
Tonnes of pontoon bridges now pepper the area, connecting the opposing banks of the Swat Valley courtesy of the army. The people and the aid effort now getting through, communication and business links restored.
Medicines San Frontieres is helping the local hospital with a worrying increase of malaria cases. Hundreds of clinics and hospitals were destroyed and now the pressure is on regional centres to pick up the slack.
The UN and its NGO partners are distributing seeds to local farmers specifically for the spring harvest. Waterlogged fields destroyed the crops or were just swept away. For a community that feeds itself from the land such help is a necessity. Up to 65 NGOs operate in this area.
Communities up and down this country continue to look for help. In the early days of the floods one community leader near Peshawar was angry at the media and said within my earshot: “What do the media really do for us … they get their story and leave us to die … just like the government!”
I have not forgotten this man’s words or the look of disgust he had as several local journalists went to reason with him about their role.
What is our role? To tell the story, honestly, fairly and accurately with impartiality? When should a journalist get involved in the cause and is it right to do so or does it depend on the cause?
I was soon to find out. It never seemed to stop raining when I was last here in August and day after day the story was the same, more people affected, more isolated, more destitute.
We had just returned from the northern Swat Valley on the remains of roads that had been washed away, after broadcasting live pictures of the ruined areas that no one on earth had seen, when we came across a small community .
They were building small stone houses along the banks of the river, too small for a family to live in. We stopped and enquired, the small structures housed hydroelectric generators, turbines that ran by water and generated power in small amounts for the isolated mountain community.
I’d heard about generator losses but hadn’t yet come across a village that had become victim and never appreciated how poor they were.
The rest is history, we filmed their plight and showed the world what these poor people would have to endure if help didn’t arrive soon and how little they were asking for. A generator can cost as little as $750.
After three weeks non-stop reporting I was pulled out of the area by our Doha headquarters for a rest. I returned to my home in Chester, UK for a break and a chance to be with family and friends. All had been gripped by the scenes of Pakistan’s worst natural disaster.
Back in Chester I had been a reporter and presenter for the ITV news channel – Granada TV. Many in the region still follow what I do now on Al Jazeera. I opened up the postbox one day to find an envelope, simply entitled “For the flood victims”, inside was ten pounds, about $16.
It wasn’t long before friends and neighbours all popped round for the obligatory cup of tea and catch up and everyone mentioned the hydroelectric generators.
Here too the rest is history, people knocking on the door, neighbours putting their hands in their pockets. I never asked for any of the money it just came and people donating it wanted it to go specifically to Gul Rehman’s village.
Schools like Chorlton Park Primary in Manchester, which has a multicultural intake, were soon asking me to talk about the floods. Teachers and parents wanted to fundraise but needed assurances about the money and where it would be used. One little boy, Lyle Cross, got together with his friends did a sponsored bike ride and cycled for 11 miles raising more than $160 – what a hero!
Lyle’s wonderful efforts as a child contrast with the perception of the Pakistani government, their reputation for the past 63 years tarnished by lavish spending and corruption, failing to serve the people in their time of need.
But now I was hearing it for myself, the international community doubting the very government elected by the Pakistani people for the Pakistani people. The power of the people couldn’t get the government to act. So overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster were they that they didn’t have the resources.
The money was now getting to me from the US and Qatar.
$1,700 is just enough to buy a basic generator and all the bits to make it run. Four weeks later I’m about to return to my second home and TV base in Doha, when Alex the planner calls – I’m off to Swat to follow up on the situation.
The journey there you already know, the surprise of the village as we arrived with the generators was a humbling experience, young and old eagerly waiting to greet us.
We unloaded the “Power for the People….that came from the People”. The village will be running full steam ahead before the winter sets in.
Thank you can never be enough but it’s all the people of Shangla can offer along with their prayers to the Al Jazeera viewers who helped them rebuild their community and lives.
So thank you:
The Staff, Parents & Children of Chorlton Park Primary School – Manchester
Mike & Carol Bartlett
John & Doreen Beard
Sandra & Wendy Bebbington
Lyle Cross & friends
Richard & Patti Day
Colin Dew Parry
Peter & Elizabeth Downey
Ted & Joan Holland
Keith & Margaret Maddocks
Doug & Phyllis Marriott
Martin and Carol Tomkinson
Rod & Pat Underwood
David & Pauline Williams
Steve and Carol Maddocks
The Eritrean Taxi Driver – Columbus, Ohio