WORLD

Soldiers of good fortune

After 40 days in earthquake-ravaged Pakistan, Canada’s DART team is leaving behind a grateful populace

ADNAN R. KHAN December 12 2005
WORLD

Soldiers of good fortune

After 40 days in earthquake-ravaged Pakistan, Canada’s DART team is leaving behind a grateful populace

ADNAN R. KHAN December 12 2005

Soldiers of good fortune

WORLD

After 40 days in earthquake-ravaged Pakistan, Canada’s DART team is leaving behind a grateful populace

ADNAN R. KHAN

THERE is a Kashmiri saying that every laboured step up a mountainside is an investment in the future. Sometime during the 40 days Canada’s Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) spent providing emergency relief to Kashmir’s earthquake victims, after a massive earthquake on Oct. 8 reduced much of the region’s cities, towns and villages to rubble, some of that Kashmiri wisdom must have rubbed off. With their time winding down last week, one might have expected the 216 DART soldiers to be looking ahead to comfort, to hot showers and a real bed, to hockey and basketball and a cold beer in front of a warm fire. Instead, engineers were inspecting water projects even as their bus back to civilization was warming up. And at a base camp in Garhi Dupatta (30 km north of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-held Kashmir), already stripped down to little more than a patch of mud, one last mobile medical team (MMT) was preparing to board a helicopter to Dhunna Kacheeli, a remote village 20 minutes away that had yet to see any aid.

“It’s the locals who’ve inspired us,” one medic told me as he rumbled out to the helipad in an army truck. “They are an incredible people. It’s been an honour to serve them.” Canada’s DART is coming home after what its commanding officer described as the “most challenging mission” in its nine-year history.

DART treated more than 9,600 earthquake victims, an average of around 240 patients a day

“Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami was daunting,” said Lt.-Col. Mike Voith. “But the severity of the injuries we were seeing in Kashmir overshadowed anything I saw in Sri Lanka. And mobility in the mountains was formidable; if you didn’t have helicopters, you simply couldn’t function.” Fortunately, the Canadians did have a helicopter, though it had to be

contracted out from a logging company in British Columbia.

That Russian-built Kamov 32, a stumpy, dual-rotor, heavy-lifting chopper designed to carry up to 4,000 kg at a time, played a crucial role not only in assisting DART’s MMTs in reaching remote villages, but also flying out aid for NGOs and the Pakistani government. According to most members of DART, it was the team’s most valuable piece of hardware. “We only shut her down three times a day, a half-hour at a time, for refuelling,” said Joe Sawkins. Otherwise, the Kamov was in the air from sunrise to sunset, the 55-year-old veteran pilot from Calgary added, rarely touching ground. It would hover over the landing pad at a makeshift airfield on the outskirts of Garhi Dupatta, dangling its Kevlar line until its next precious load was attached, and then fly off into the mountains.

“The Kamov was my rooster,” said Muhammad Yassin, a 55-year-old villager who trekked 30 km over the mountains with his family to Garhi Dupatta after his home was demolished by the earthquake. “It woke me up in the morning. It was in the air so often, I can recognize it just by the sound it makes.” For many of the survivors in and around Garhi Dupatta, the Kamov was the first sound of aid, a welcome cacophony bringing hope to a seemingly hopeless situation.

In Dunna Kacheeli, Lt.-Col. Arshad Saeed, one of DART’s doctors, explained why his MMT had to undertake that one last mission. “That’s why we came here,” he said. “When we heard this place hadn’t been touched, we had to come.” Fortunately, the village hadn’t been hit too badly by the 7-6 magnitude quake, but Saeed told his team to set up the mobile clinic anyway. Within minutes, tables were laid out with medical supplies, and an announcement was made over the mosque’s loudspeaker that medical relief had arrived. One of the first patients to hobble in was an old man whose leg was a patchwork of scars and bruises from injuries sustained during the quake. One of the team’s nurses cleaned and dressed the wounds while local interpreters asked about any other symptoms of illness.

In another part of the village farther up the mountain, a second team, led by Capt. Helen Wright, also serviced patients. “What we’ve been seeing for the past couple of weeks are more chronic illnesses,” she said, “mostly things you’d expect from people who’ve been living in tents. But early on we dealt with an incredible amount of serious trauma injuries. The transition from disaster relief to long-term care has been amazing for me to see and be a part of. I think that’s one of the main reasons DART is leaving—we’ve completed our mission.” In total, DART’s medical teams treated more than 9,600 earthquake victims, an average of around 240 a day over the 40 days of their mandate. They immunized an additional 2,145 people in preparation for a winter when communicable diseases will be a serious threat.

But the scale of the Canadian contribution can’t simply be measured by statistics alone. Whether in Afghanistan or Pakistan, Canadian troops have shown a natural ability to bridge cultural and linguistic gaps and touch the local population on a human level. It may sound

clichéd, but the humility for which Canadians are famous the world over serves them well both in conflict zones, where an unassuming nature can save your life, and in disaster areas, where approachability can very well save someone else’s. “The locals appreciated the time we spent with them,” said Wright. “All of the doctors that deployed with DART were family physicians, which was no accident. We’re trained to spend time with our patients, to talk to them and try to empathize with their situation. The people we treated weren’t accustomed to that; they were moved by it and it made our work that much more fulfilling.”

It’s a message echoed by those who benefited from the DART presence. “The Canadians never made a distinction between rich or poor,” said Yassin. “They helped everyone equally. We’re so used to corruption in Pak-

‘We’re so used to corruption in Pakistan, but the Canadians treat everyone with respect’

istan—in this country the rich always go to the front of the line. But the Canadians treat everyone with respect.” For many of DART’s soldiers, such testimonials should be reason enough to silence critics who accused the team of arriving late and having little impact on relief efforts.

Todd Shea, a musician from New York City who volunteers regularly for Operation Heartbeat, a U.S. NGO that arrived in Garhi Dupatta days after the earthquake, says the criticism DART received in the early days of its deployment was unwarranted. “It made me physically angry when I read about it,” said Shea, who was in London, Ont., on Oct. 28 for a gig when he read an article in one of Canada’s national dailies condemning DART as a waste of money. “At the time, I’d worked with DART already in Garhi Dupatta, and my experience with them was exactly opposite to what the article said. I don’t have enough good things to say about them. But the best measure of how valuable they were is that everyone, from the Pakistan army to the people on the street, is sorry to see them go.”

The criticisms, explains Shea, who has worked in numerous relief operations including 9/H in New York and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, miss the point of DART. “They’re not designed for the acute phase of disaster relief,” he says. “That’s where NGOs like Operation Heartbeat, which are light and mobile, can come in to basically act as a BandAid solution. DART then sets up with its heavy equipment, which takes a little more time to deploy, and has the capability to address issues more thoroughly.” As an example, Shea

points out that shortly after the earthquake hit, the water supply in and around Garhi Dupatta was so badly contaminated that water purification tablets “were not doing the job.” It was not until DART arrived and set up its reverse osmosis water purification units that the area had clean drinking water. Now, according to Oxfam, which will be taking over maintenance of Garhi Dupatta’s water supply from DART, the region’s water is on the way to being better than the pre-earthquake supply.

“In fact,” says Mubashir Niaz, the Oxfam engineer who will be assuming the reins of the water project, “what Canada has provided in terms of the pump station and filtration system they’ve built will give this area better

water than many major cities in Pakistan.” By the end of the mission last week, DART had already provided 73-7 million litres of clean water to Garhi Dubatta and the surrounding areas through the water purification units alone—no small feat. “We thank God for sending the Canadians,” said Manisha, 25, an earthquake survivor from Wadiye Leepa, a mountain village 85 km north of Garhi Dupatta. “We would have died if they hadn’t come.”

DART is leaving behind a legacy that many local NGO workers say will outlast the reconstruction effort. The modern clinic on DART’s base, which became the mainstay of medical relief in the area, has now been relocated to the grounds of the existing hospital, along with its medical supplies, a generator, gas heaters and 20 in-patient beds. The clinic, now run by the Pakistani Red Crescent, has become a magnet for various donors looking for solid infrastructure in which to house other essentials, including an X-ray machine.

At the clinic, on the eve of their departure, a couple of DART engineers were putting the final touches on the electrical system before heading back to their tents for one last frigid night on their emptied base. “There you go,” said one of them to a handful of hospital workers as he flipped the switch. “You now have light.” M