An American serviceman stands on board the USS Peleliu, the base of relief operations in flood affected areas of the country. PHOTO: GIBRAN PESHIMAM
ABOARD THE USS PELELIU: While a number of countries widely regarded as being close to Pakistan are trudging their way towards lending a helping hand to tens of millions of Pakistanis affected by the devastating floods, the one country that is looked at with most suspicion, if not outright hatred, continues to spearhead the relief effort.
The United States on Wednesday upped its assistance for Pakistan’s flood affectees from $76 million to $90 million – a figure that is by far the largest on the donors list. In fact, the figure is as much as the next three donors on the list combined.
Aside from the provision of goods and monetary aid, one of the methods of assistance being provided by the US is the use of its aircraft, which is at the moment the most important factor in the relief effort given the destruction of the road network in Pakistan.
Some 19 US helicopters have been brought for use in Pakistan and 15 are already operating in the country – helping provide relief goods as well as airlifting stranded people. These include three Navy MH-53E Sea Dragons and four Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallions – machines that rank up there in terms of size and capability. They can carry more than 55 people and a payload of 15 tons.
There are also 12 CH-46E Sea Knights – medium-sized aircraft which can carry 25 passengers and has a takeoff weight of about 11 tons.
These helicopters have basically been put at the disposal of the Pakistan government, since they operate in full coordination with Islamabad as well as the armed forces of Pakistan, which are in the midst of their own respective efforts to help millions of Pakistanis recover from a disaster of biblical proportions.
Over a dozen additional aircraft are expected in coming days to supplement the assistance.
Standing aboard the USS Peleliu, the American vessel that brought most of the helicopters towards the Pakistani coast to begin relief and rescue operations, Rear Admiral Sinclair Harris, the commander of the relief operation, briefed the media about the efforts currently underway on the part of the United States.
He spoke of the almost immediate orders given to the vessel to move towards Pakistan from Bahrain to assist in flood relief efforts.
Rear Admiral Haris, who also worked on the relief effort for one of the US’ most potent natural disasters, Hurricane Katrina, puts it plainly.
“People want to know just how bad it is; I tell them that New Orleans was devastated after Katrina – but that pales in comparison to what has happened in Pakistan.”
The 2,100-strong crew of the Peleliu stands aboard the massive – over 39,000 ton, 820 foot – vessel docked off the coast of Karachi – in international waters. And though they may not say it, it is clear they do not want to tread on the sensitive issue of sovereignty.
United States Consul General in Karachi William Martin visited the Peleliu on Wednesday and thanked the crew for their effort. He also highlighted the philosophy of the US and President Barack Obama regarding the relief effort.
“Admiral Haris, I want to thank you and the men and women of ESG5 for your selfless determination to help thousands and thousands of desperate people whose lives have been devastated by the unprecedented floods in Pakistan.”
Speaking of his visit to a camp set up in Karachi a day earlier, the C-G said: “I saw the pain and devastation in their eyes. It is easy to talk about numbers, numbers of victims, quantity of aid, but what I saw yesterday, the sick children, the frightened and helpless mothers, it touches our common humanity and makes our differences seem petty.”
Martin added that: “More than 440,000 meals, halal meals, were delivered to Pakistan within 36 hours of the initial flooding. We have now committed US$90 million to support relief efforts in Pakistan, including funding for the United Nations and many local and international NGOs.
“For example, the World Food Programme (WFP) has provided nourishment to over 840,000 flood-affected Pakistanis. More than half of that food has been donated by the United States.”
When asked to comment on the irony of helping people many of whom have a less than compassionate view of the US, Rear Admiral Harris said that the mission is not focused on that aspect, or that of image building.
“It’s just about helping the people at the moment”, he said, adding, “it is a matter of humanity – nothing else.”
Published in The Express Tribune, August 19th, 2010.