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A plea to Uncle Musharraf
November 29, 2005
'Uncle Musharraf, come and sleep here for a night to see how very cold it is here.'
That innocent invitation from a shivering seven-year-old in a high altitude village razed by the October 8 earthquake -- sparked tremors at the highest government level in Pakistan.
Apart from flying visits by top army leaders to the village, it triggered investigations into the possibility of manipulation by the television anchor who interviewed the youngster.
Clad in a thin cotton shirt and a tattered pajama, seven-year-old Zeeshan spoke to Hamid Mir of Geo Television while standing by the grave of his elder brother killed under the rubble of their home in Gajju Khawaja, a village in the Neelam Valley about 18 km north of Muzaffarabad. The valley has been facing a severe snowstorm for the past two days.
As he narrated his experiences of the quake and its aftermath, his voice and expressions exuded the innocence and pain of a harried lamb.
"How do you feel sleeping under open sky without blankets or warm clothes?" Mir asked.
"We sit or sleep around fire." He replied in the affirmative when asked if he had heard about President Musharraf. But he was unaware if the President has sent his men with aid to help the people in his village even 50 days after the earthquake.
"What would you say if you see President Musharraf?"
"I will say, Uncle Musharraf, come and sleep here for a night to see how very cold it is here," said Zeeshan.
Mir and his cameraman had traveled on foot and mule to reach the village, which is 4,500 feet above sea level. The road linking the village to outside world was destroyed by landslides. Gujju Khawaja had about 550 people living in 95 houses, all of which collapsed on October 8. More than 40 people including 22 children were killed.
The village and five others in the same area did not receive any tents or food by the Pakistan Army relief teams.
After getting over their surprise at seeing Mir, the villagers railed against the army, which had not returned after an initial survey. No relief supplies have been received. A religious organization, Jamat-ul-Dawa, provided a few plastic sheets and food, which was inadequate.
A young woman who was carrying an infant said her child had diarrhea for the past month and was coughing incessantly, but they had no medical relief. Neither mother nor child had warm clothes on.
At this stage two helicopters flew overhead, but the villagers said they never land in their ravaged hamlet because they have no relatives in the Army.
They vehemently rejected Mir's suggestion that they could be lying about not receiving any aid.
The Geo shots replicated scores of similar moving scenes aired by the gifted and enterprising team of reporters and cameramen of another private TV channel, Aaj, led by eminent anchor Talaat Hussain.
They reached even the most inaccessible places and filmed nerve-shattering scenes of death, destruction, want and desperation. These reports evoked ire of the establishment and provoked allegations that the channel was carrying out a concerted negative campaign.
However, President Musharraf grudgingly acknowledged that such reports have helped the government to rectify the lapses and provide relief where it had not reached earlier.
The Geo story thus had a familiar ring, and it evoked an immediate response. The Vice Chief of Army Staff General Ahsan Saleem Hayat flew to the area along with other senior officials the next morning with food, clothes, and other essential supplies.
After speaking to the people of Gajju Khawaja and other villages in Pathika mentioned by Hamid Mir in his stunning 40 minute report, Hayat conducted an aerial survey to see if there were any tents put up in the region. There were none.
The next day, army spokesman and DG of Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) Maj Gen Shaukat Sultan reached Gajju Khawaja in another helicopter with a team of State-controlled PTV.
The objective was to prove Hamid Mir wrong.
General Sultan interrogated Zeeshan, but the youngster stood by his words. Simultaneously, word leaked out that Mir was being blamed for tutoring Zeeshan and others to create a dramatic impact. But the general's investigation failed to unearth any evidence to back this allegation.
When President House, President Musharraf's residence, came to know that some other international news agencies were planning to teams to the area, some tents and warm clothes were rushed to the people of Gajju Khawaja. Surprisingly, ISPR never issued any press release of that "good work".
According to reliable sources, the spokesman of Pakistan Army tried to force Geo TV to fire Hamid Mir. Another source said the management of the channel was under severe strain.
Zeeshan's plaintive invitation to "Uncle Musharraf" spoke volumes about the plight of men, women and children on the hilltops.
But an attempt to get the army's version of the story proved to be an unpleasant experience.
Asked by the author to briefly comment on Hamid Mir's story, General Shaukat Sultan's response was circuitous.
The author does not claim having a fantastic memory, but here is its approximate summation:
"We know everything and take appropriate actions on what is shown on TV channels or written in print media. We have people everywhere and I may or may not go to any place for investigation," he said.
"The village in question had 95 houses and has got 21 tents some of which were also provided by a Turkish team. A few more have been kept packed by some villagers. The Army's base camp is 15 minutes descent from the village and 35 minutes return journey as it takes more time to climb up. Though the small road to the village is not serviceable, the army repaired another nearby road within five weeks while the people thought it would take five years.
"By the way, where do you belong? Have you ever been to this place? As for the dress worn by the child and others, do you know that these people have lived like that for centuries?" he continued.
"I have no time to waste with you on details (the author had requested only a brief response). I offer you to fly to the village in helicopter. You will write down in your story all that I have said and the offer I have made."
Here the author's professional instincts got the better of him.
" Well General Sahib, firstly, I am not conducting any inquiry, accusing anybody or doubting any version that may require a personal visit. The helicopter could be put to a better use like carrying relief supplies instead of just satisfying a journalist."
"Secondly, I am not under any obligation to write what you tell me to do. I will write whatever is relevant to my story," I told him.
The response was rage and an unmitigated display of arrogance and temper: "I don't care who you are but I shall see to it that your paper bloody well publishes what I say," the General roared.
The unprovoked outburst was surprising and stunning, even though one had heard of more vicious encounters with other media people. No wonder he is so favourably perceived by those who are not much beholden to the Boss.
Afzal Khan is a senior Pakistani journalist working with Khaleej Times and The Nation, Islamabad. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org