A devastating earthquake has killed at least 328 people in Pakistan’s south-western province of Balochistan, with authorities saying that the toll may rise dramatically as rescuers search through collapsed buildings and begin to check on outlying mountain districts. Several hundred people have also been injured and thousands more are homeless and in need of essential supplies.
The worst affected area appears to be in and around Awaran, an impoverished city of about 200,000 where many locals live in mud houses. One journalist in Awaran described horrific scenes of survivors digging through rubble in search of belongings and bodies, while others prepared rows of graves. “As far as the human eye can see, all the houses here have been flattened,” Mohammad Shabir told Reuters.
The BBC reports that the army has diverted more than 200 soldiers to affected districts and is also providing medical teams and tents sent in from the regional capital Quetta. Pakistan maintains a strong military presence in Balochistan due to an ongoing struggle with Baloch separatists.
However, rescue efforts have been hampered by difficulties in accessing parts of the remote and mountainous region. Roads are exceedingly poor and all communication is down in some areas. Balochistan government spokesman Jan Muhammad Buledi said that although the search for bodies was continuing, the priority was to ensure medical attention for injured survivors.
The area has very little infrastructure, so helicopters have been called in to ferry seriously injured people to hospitals as far away as Karachi. “We are seriously lacking medical facilities and there is no space to treat injured people in the local hospitals,” Mr. Buledi said.
The magnitude 7.7 quake struck the sparsely-populated region mid-afternoon on Sept. 24, affecting more than 300,000 people across six districts. Shocks were felt hundreds of miles away, with reports of shaking coming in from Delhi and Dubai. Workers in Karachi – more than 150 miles away – evacuated office buildings due to tremors.
Remarkably, the quake also spawned a new island, albeit one which may not last long. A new land mass more than 600 ft long and 300 ft wide rose from the sea near the southern port of Gwadar, attracting fascinated sightseers to nearby beaches. The BBC’s science correspondent Jonathon Amos says that “the rise of previously submerged ocean features is a recognisable occurrence after very big earthquakes,” and that the Gwadar island is probably due to previously stable sand and mud being shaken by the quake and oozing up through surface rock. Due to their composition, these new islands tend to be quickly eroded.
Balochistan is no stranger to tragedy. Serious earthquakes are quite common – in April, 35 people died as a result of a major quake in neighboring Iran – and in 1935, one of the deadliest earthquakes in history killed more than 30,000 people in the province.
Of equal concern is increasing sectarian violence and the presence of several organizations designated as terrorist groups by Pakistan and the international community, although Pakistani security forces operating in the province appear to be no better. Over the past decade a conflict which has been largely ignored by the rest of Pakistan, let alone the rest of the world, has featured horrific acts from all involved in the struggle.
While suicide bombings such as the recent attack on a Peshawar church grab headlines around the world, the all-too-regular killings and “disappearances” which occur in Balochistan’s civil war raise barely a murmur. Militant separatists launch terrorist attacks, while government forces pursue a relentless “kill and dump” policy.
Amnesty International and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan note that more than 100 people are abducted by security agencies each year, with Amnesty calling on the Pakistan government in 2011 to “immediately provide accountability for the alarming number of killings and abductions in Balochistan attributed to government forces in recent months.” They’re still waiting.
Balochistan is a vast territory – it constitutes about 44 percent of Pakistan’s area – but is home to only about five percent of its population. Poverty is rife, though the social elite – the “sardars” – are wealthy beyond measure. Separatist supporters claim that secession is a necessity unless Pakistan offers greater autonomy, stops human rights abuses, and grants a more equitable share of royalties from the province’s immense natural resources.
The earthquake which struck the region on Sept. 24 is an immediate tragedy, but there may also be political fallout in the months ahead. An inadequate response from the Pakistani government and people will no doubt provide additional momentum for those who seek independence for Balochistan.