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Pakistanis Send Help to Haiti, With Memories of Tragedy at Home

On the morning of October 8, 2005, a powerful earthquake shook Pakistan with its epicenter focused on the country's mountainous and remote northern regions.

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In the weeks following the massive earthquake in Haiti, thousands of aid workers from around the world rushed to provide food, medical and logistical assistance.  The United Nations estimates the disaster killed some 200,000 people and left more than a million others homeless.  As the nation struggles to rebuild from its recent tragedy, Pakistan is still coping with the effects of its own quake five years ago. 

On the morning of October 8, 2005, a powerful earthquake shook Pakistan with its epicenter focused on the country's mountainous and remote northern regions.  The quake jarred an area from Kashmir to the capital, Islamabad, to the border regions with Afghanistan.

Most of the main passes to the mountain villages became clogged, restricting aid to many of the 3.5 million people affected.  Entire villages were destroyed.

Aftershocks rocked the region for weeks.  The disaster killed about 73,000 people and injured nearly twice that number.  Abdul Sattar Edhi was there.

Edhi is a household name in Pakistan for his humanitarian services, particularly in emergency relief.  The Edhi Welfare Foundation has worked in Pakistan for more than 50 years.  Edhi himself has devoted some 60 years of his life to helping the needy and destitute.

Now, the 88-year-old Edhi walks inside the walls of his Islamabad compound with slow and measured steps.  But his desire to help those less fortunate belies his age.

He is about to embark on a mission to help Haiti's earthquake victims half-a-world-away. "Whenever there is any emergency in any part of the world, I want to go there and help people with my own hands," said Edhi.

Edhi already has gathered one million dollars and assembled a team, including his two sons, to  help in the recovery effort.  But weeks after the disaster, the humanitarian worker still is waiting on visas to leave the country.

Farooq Ahmad Khan is the chairman of Pakistan's National Disaster Management Authority.  His organization has played a critical role in Pakistan's relief and reconstruction efforts after the 2005 earthquake.

He says the government's strong mandate for his organization was critical to the recovery's success.  He says the Haitian effort needs the same strategy.

"It's a centralized planning - controlled but decentralized execution, that is the principle.  But, this is only successful if there is an absolute political backing, and everybody is on board," said Khan.

Much like the situation in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, Khan says Pakistan had to relocate four cities that also were directly on top of fault lines.  He says that while it is a long and complicated effort, he hopes to achieve much of the relocation by next year.

"We have come a long way, and there is a little distance left to achieve that," said Khan. "Overall, I think the reconstruction and rehabilitation has been a success in Pakistan, according to the international organizations."

But five years later, the effects of the earthquake still mar Islamabad's skyline.  About 150 families used to live in the Margalla Towers apartments.  Now, the complex is an empty and crumbling shell, a makeshift memorial to the 74 people who died in the collapse.

"I still feel that I am walking on my own house... the rubble of my own house," said Iftikhar Chaudri. His family owned three of these apartments. "This the remains of a 10-story building, and you can see the concrete slabs," he said.

He led the effort to help the victims receive compensation. "You see, just you need one push and that will be demolished," said Chaudri.

He says official inquiries into the disaster determined that the building's construction was flawed. "Now you can see this line.  It is detached from the main pillar... obviously not safe," said Chaudri.

Former Lieutenant General Farooq Ahmad Khan says the incident at Margalla Towers is a reminder that the way forward for any country emerging from a natural disaster is not an easy path.

"It's an embarrassment that Margalla Towers fell," he said. "But the compensation that was allowed by the Supreme Court is being paid to these people."

Abdul Sattar Edhi says he also knows it will be a long recovery process in Haiti. "This money that I got is from the Pakistani people, so this is a gesture and a help from the Pakistani people to Haiti," he said.

Despite bureaucratic roadblocks and Pakistan's own hardships, Edhi says his fellow countrymen and women want to do what they can for those suffering.

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