Sunday, August 29, 2010

Islamist charities gain goodwill in flood calamity

By Michael Georgy
MARGALA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Hadiya Bibi sits paralyzed in a wheelchair donated by an Islamic charity, its wheels coated in mud caused by flooding.

Over a year ago she was paralyzed by a shell she said the army fired at militants. The government never provided compensation, and now Bibi is turning to Islamist parties and charities to help her cope after raging waters swept away her meager belongings.

"I registered for help with authorities because of my injury and nothing happened. Now everything is gone. They (Islamists) will help me," she said, as members of the Al Khidmat Islamic charity spoke with flood victims about their needs.

Pakistan's worst-ever natural disaster has made more than six million people homeless and now fears are growing that disease and malnutrition will inflict more suffering and add to a death toll of around 1,600.

And while floodwaters might be receding, anger continues to rise over the government's slow response. Authorities are still absent from many towns and villages one month after the monsoon floods struck.

The speed and efficiency with which Islamist charities, some with suspected links to militants, have helped flood victims worries government officials and the United States, which wants a stable Pakistan because of its role as a frontline state in the war on militancy.

Officials from both governments have warned the Taliban will try to exploit the disorder and misery to gain recruits.

The success of Islamist parties in providing aid points out the failures of Pakistan's government, which like many before it, is widely viewed as corrupt, inefficient and neglectful.

Al Khidmat is linked to Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), the most influential Islamist party in Pakistan. JI members fought in the jihad against Soviet occupation troops in Afghanistan.

But it is not believed to have ties with the Taliban or other banned groups. Nevertheless, its relief efforts have helped discredit the government because of its relative efficiency.

Al Khidmat rushed to villages like Margala after floods flattened two-storey concrete homes like pancakes and filled shops with five feet of mud even though they were shuttered.

Approximately every two days, the group provided sacks of sugar, rice, cooking oil, flour and tea to families of six, enough for a week, part of a highly organized relief campaign.

So far, the foundation has helped about 4,000 flood-affected families, with only 120 volunteers and money from Pakistanis in the country and abroad.

Its provincial leaders last week held a meeting and decided they would also provide reconstruction support to poor families.

Judging by the mood in villages like Margala, the government may have lost any public goodwill gained after an army offensive pushed the Taliban out of Swat valley over a year ago.

"We don't want politicians. We want the Islamic groups in power. The government just steals and the al Khidmat is pure." said Hadar Ali, a college student whose life has been reduced to laying bricks all day in stifling heat.

Swat, home to about 1.3 million people, is still recovering from hard times when the battle between the army and Taliban militants brought destruction.

The government promised to invest heavily to rebuild, create jobs and boost security forces and police, plans that have been suspended because of the flood catastrophe.

Few people expect the Taliban to return and impose their harsh rule, including Khidmat leaders. But some predict trouble if the government doesn't improve its image.

"The government has no credibility. There is going to be lots of unrest in Swat," said Al Khidmat's Swat president Akhtar Ali.

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