Aid convoys under threat

As part of the Offroad Pakistan relief convoy, I have been making regular trips to interior Sindh. On our first trip to Sukkur two weeks ago, our trucks were attacked while distributing food packages on the Sukkur-Shikarpur road. I was present on location then and had to assist in distribution while trying to maintain some kind of order. I realized that the mob of over 700 or so was desperate for food and water, and didn’t want anything else.

A week ago, in Shikarpur, we experienced mobbing  but soon realised that quite a few people in the mob weren’t IDPs but professional thugs, which prompted us to sometimes stop our distribution and drive away. This was a decision taken by our core members to make sure that the aid we had brought was reaching the IDPs and not people who were out to make a quick buck.

This last weekend however, our aid convoys were attacked by organised mobs. Rehan Bandukda, one of the aid workerswho went to deliver 20.000 ready-to-eat meals on Saturday recalls the scene en route to Thatta:

“As soon as we reached the Makli bypass, 20 to 30 people came in front of our trucks, the lead car got through but the trucks had to slow down and this is when people started climbing on to the trucks.  I was in the car and was asked by the remaining covoy to turn back. When we turned back, it was a scene out of a nightmare: dozens of people had climbed onto the trucks with others on rickshaws and motorcycles following. The looters who had managed to climb on to the truck were trying to get through the tarpaulin to get the food supplies and pass it on. At least a hundred people or more were following on foot, hoping to get any spoils left behind

Nabil Jangda leading another convoy with 4,000 ready-to-eat meals later reported:

“The situation is beyond the control of NGOS and the local police. With the help of Rangers, we managed to reach the Pakistan Steel community safe house where Karachi Relief Trust is planning to set up a tent community and is currently giving shelter to around 1,000 IDPs. In spite of the security at the gates of the safe house, as we loaded our truck people from the streets (including locals) jumped over the fences and started grabbing anything they could get a hold of. We then called Falah-e-Insaniayt Foundation (another NGO) who had with them private security guards, to help us successfully transfer the goods out of the safe house in to a warehouse. If the aw and order situation is not controlled in Thatta, it will be impossible to carry out any relief work”

We were not the only convoy to be attacked en route to, and in, Thatta. Sana Saleem who is a member of the Future Leaders of Pakistan, Karachi chapter reports from on site near Jamshero while distributing food for infants :

“While we were on our  way, we were informed of mob attacks and widespread looting but the fact is there is no strategy to avoid these attacks. At one point we were surrounded by 300 women and the crowd got unruly very quickly but what was most shocking for me was when we were chased by 7 motorbikes, with three men on each, trying to jump onto our truck to get a hold of the relief packets.”

All three of these convoys were rescued by immediate action by police as well as by members of other NGOs based in Thatta. An extremely crucial aspect in all three incidents is that the people looting or attempting to attack the aid convoys did not appear to be IDPs as they were much more organised.

The police and government authorities are so thinly stretched due to evacuation work, that they really cannot provide security to each relief convoy. At the same time, the relief work cannot be halted and must reach the flood affectees. Similar issues are being faced by foreign aid workers in Sukkur with “suspicious individuals” loitering around the area.

The government needs to deploy the Army to ensure safety of relief convoys at least along the main highways to maintain security. Such threats will not only stop the supply of local aid but will also hinder aid supplies from international donors. Although the local police have been very supportive, they simply do not have the resources to handle the situation. A mobile escort with a convoy usually means eight policemen against a mob of sometimes 200-300 people. How can they protect the convoy when they cannot even protect themselves from the mob?

For people and organisations who are taking or are considering taking relief supplies, it is absolutely necessary that they liaison with local authorities. It is also important to not have aid or organisation banners displayed on delivery vehicles since that makes it an easy target. Also, sometimes one has decide the validity of taking a relief truck into certain mobbing or holding back the supplies till the path is clear. Please remember this is not disaster tourism, the threat on ground is quite real and only those prepared to handle it should be out there.


As published in the Dawn Blog on 31/8/2010

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