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Turks Hailed as Heroes in Earthquake-Stricken Pakistan

When a devastating earthquake ripped through Pakistani-administered Kashmir and adjoining North West Frontier Province two months ago, Turkish physicians and aid workers were among the first to arrive at the scene. Turkey's massive contribution to the aid and rescue effort has won hearts and minds among millions of Pakistanis and raised the country's profile throughout the Islamic world even as it seeks membership in the European Union.

The clatter of helicopters ferrying the sick and wounded blends in with the hum of daily life in a community still reeling from the shock of the killer quake that struck here on October 8.

As many as 80,000 people were killed and some three million others rendered homeless by the 7.8 magnitude tremor that destroyed over 200,000 homes.

Pakistan, a desperately poor country of 162 million has won pledges of more than $6 billion from international donors for relief and reconstruction work in the quake zone. But Pakistani officials say one country's contribution stands out - that of Turkey, which has disbursed $150 million in aid to victims so far.

This is how Tariq Shafi, a school teacher in Muzaffarabad describes Turkey.

"Turkey is number one," he said.

Makhdoom Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat is the Minister of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas. In a recent interview in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, Mr. Hayat told VOA that Turkish doctors were the first non-Pakistanis to arrive at the scene of the quake.

"They were as committed, as devoted and as motivated than very safe to say [sic] than anyone I would even say than the Kashmiris who are the victims of this tragedy," he said. "The way they have treated them, its not only a question of providing medicine or the question of undertaking operations or surgery, it's a pure spirit the way they have treated these Kashmiris with love."

At the pristine camp run by Turkey's state-run relief organization the Red Crescent, Turkish doctors, both male and female, tend to dozens of patients who come in daily. Camp coordinator Zafer Karakas says they have treated 10,200 patients since the quake struck, performing 200 operations, including 15 amputations.

At the opposite end of Muzaffarabad, school teacher Tariq Shafi surveys the ruins of his school. Built in 1924, even before Pakistan became independent from the British who then ruled over the Indian subcontinent, the school "became a tomb" for 200 of the schools students, including his only son.

Students who survived are now taught in makeshift classes set up in the open air. Their desks, blackboards and other materials were donated by a Turkish non-governmental organization called Pak Turk.

"We are very, very thankful to our Turk brothers," said Mr. Shafi. "This educational foundation that they provided us desks for students and they are trying to make a building for our students and we are most thankful because this is oldest achool of AJK, Azad Kashmir."

Pakistani and Turkish officials say the strong bond between their nations go back to the First World War when Muslims throughout the subcontinent who later founded Pakistan donated money to Turkey in its war against the Allies. Cooperation between the two countries, both strategic allies of the United States, has continued ever since. In September, Turkey played host to a meeting between the foreign ministers of Israel and Pakistan, the first ever such encounter between the traditionally hostile states.

But alongside the common bonds of religion and history, Turkey's response to the earthquake in Pakistan is driven also by a strong sense of empathy, analysts say. Turkey was struck by a massive earthquake in 1999 that claimed over 20,000 lives, an experience that Red Crescent officials say, helped prepare them for the disaster in Pakistan.