x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Situation in Pakistan was 'tragic': relief commander

Just one day after they received the order, a team of 40 UAE Armed Forces personnel was among the first to arrive in flood-ravaged Pakistan.

Members of the UAE Armed Forces carry out relief operations in the Pakistani provinces of Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan.
Members of the UAE Armed Forces carry out relief operations in the Pakistani provinces of Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan.

Within 24 hours of the redeployment order, 40 UAE Armed Forces personnel had landed in Pakistan. By the next morning, they had set up base in one of the regions worst hit by the summer floods.

Brigadier General Abdulrahman Abdullah, the commander of the relief force, described the situation that greeted them as "tragic".

"Natural disasters are merciless and do not differentiate between rich and poor," he said.

For the next two months, the soldiers provided medical help and aid to people in the most demanding and harrowing of conditions.

Twenty million Pakistanis were affected by the floods, which claimed 2000 lives. As one of the first relief forces to arrive, the UAE personnel were assigned the provinces of Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan.

"This triangle of provinces is considered among the toughest in Pakistan because it has flat land that was completely covered in water," said Brig Gen Abdullah, who also served in UAE relief efforts in Kosovo and the 2005 Pakistan earthquake.

The UAE's previous relief work gave the force vast experience in dealing with the floods, a project that took on enormous complexity.

Upon arrival, the UAE force began a reconnaissance mission to assess the damage, the relief material needed and the medical services they could provide survivors.

Two medical teams were dispatched - one airborne to reach stranded flood victims and one ground-based for emergency services and treatment.

Other countries and international organisations sought to coordinate with the UAE relief force, which had access to three Chinook helicopters that could transport supplies directly to victims.

In addition to the Chinooks, C-130 and CN-235 transport planes carried aid from the UAE over eight trips.

Among the difficulties for the relief operations were finding landing spots for the planes, fast-spreading disease and people who had gone up to 20 days without proper food.

"The main roads and bridges were also cut off preventing vehicles and trucks from reaching them," said Brig Gen Abdullah. "But we go back and say that we had the capability to deal with these problems."

The relief force left on August 8, a day after the redeployment order, stopped for refuelling in Muscat and continued on to Karachi. The next morning they were in Multan in Punjab province.

"We told them we left a great country that has all of life's amenities, and we left the big houses and everything, and we didn't leave it to sit down, we came here to work," said Lieutenant Colonel Saeed, the force's deputy commander.

The team prepared a support base to station the planes, store spare parts and co-ordinate operations.

The UAE transported a total of 427 tonnes of relief aid and evacuated about 1,700 flood victims.

Land convoys from the UAE by sea carried 150 tonnes of aid to Punjab and Islamabad, and the relief force coordinated with the Red Crescent to provide an additional 227 tonnes of food in transport planes.

The Armed Forces also handed out cash to people who needed heart and brain surgery and to children at Quetta General Hospital, in addition to medicine and equipment for hospitals in the affected provinces.

Brig Gen Abdullah said the country's efforts earned it the respect of its allies and the United Nations, which asked the UAE to deliver a large amount of relief supplies when reports said some relief material was being sold.

The Armed Forces helped Pakistan build eight water purification plants, return victims to their homes and provide them with essential supplies.

"People returning from the refugee camps need shelter and care, the second stage will be completed by the government's agencies, which are already there," he said.

After the immediate response, the work of rebuilding now falls to Pakistani agencies.

"Our work in any mission is complimentary. We do not leave a vacuum," said Brig Gen Abdullah.

He described the UAE's creed in relief operations as one of equality.

"Everyone for us is equal. Our goal is to help the needy whoever they are, regardless of religion, colour, race," he said.

kshaheen@thenational.ae