The tragedy that unfolded in the tourist resort of Murree Hills in Punjab Pakistan between the fateful night of January 6 and January 7 was a natural calamity that turned into a man-made disaster.
The death toll due to heavy snowfall in Murree Hills has been reported to be as high as 25. A minor girl who had caught cold and overnight had developed pneumonia has also died as she could not be rushed to the hospital in time. People across Pakistan, as well as India, are still in shock after watching the images of dead people lying in their cars. Everyone is trying to figure out how come happy tourists turned into frozen faces of death.
This is how the events unfolded which led to this tragedy. On January 5, Fawad Chaudhry, the Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting in Pakistan, had tweeted in jubilation that more than 1,00,000 tourist vehicles have entered Murree (against a capacity to sustain just under 4,000 vehicles), which was a sign of prosperity in the country.
On the same day, the Met department in Pakistan issued a weather warning according to which Murree, Jhika Gali, Nathiya Gali and Galiyat would receive heavy snowfall leading to road blocks. On January 6, the Aviation Division of the Cabinet Secretariat in Islamabad also issued a weather alert predicting heavy snowfall between January 6 and January 9 in the aforementioned tourist spots. However, no action was taken by any government department, local or national, to prepare for the approaching severe weather condition.
On January 7, Murree and suburbs received 16.5 inches of snowfall. During which time as many as 1,34,000 vehicles were cleared to enter Murree. Vehicles began to get stuck in the heavy snow, which turned into a blizzard causing several pine trees to fall on the cars.
A horrifying tweet by Sirmed, who was stuck in the traffic jam for 24 hours, read: "We are stuck right in front of the Military Academy and Pakistan Air Force reception in Lower Toppa and no one came to people's aid for at least 8-10 hours. At 7 AM, three Air Force officials came outside with packets of biscuits and handed them out to three cars just to take pictures and immediately disappeared. A tree from their compound fell outside on the road, crushing three cars beneath it and still no one came to the rescue."
In Murree, Pakistan Army has three large military camps but they are kept separated from the 'civilians' by high fences covered in barbed wire that surround their compound and with signs on display for the public that anyone trying to trespass will be shot.
Once it was realised that thousands of tourists were stranded in snow covered cars, locals responded by opening up their houses for shelter. They even began to push vehicles that were stuck in deep snow. The locals provided food, water and tea to those stuck in their vehicles for more than 24 hours. However, the fully stocked up Army messes kept their gates shut.
It is a well-known fact that Pakistani military officers and their families own most of the hotel business in Murree. No surprise then that as disaster struck, hotel rates suddenly soared up by up to 400 per cent. A normal hotel room during peak season could be hired for Pakistani rupees 5,000 ($28). Now hotels were making demands from the disaster-stricken tourists to pay Rs 20,000 ($104) upwards. The maximum a tourist claimed he was asked for a room was Rs 70,000 ($ 397).
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Imran Khan's remarks caused an outrage on social media. He blamed the deaths of holiday makers on the tourists themselves, saying "rush of people proceeding to (Murree) without checking weather conditions" is the cause for the debacle.
Blaming the victims themselves for the deaths stinks of government's insensitivity towards common people. I vividly remember that this was not Imran Khan's attitude when his own sister Aleema Khan was stranded in Pakistan occupied Gilgit-Baltistan after the glacial lake burst in Golen Gol area of Chitral in July 2009.
At that time, all efforts were put in place by the civil administration and Pakistan Army to rescue Imran Khan's sister using helicopter. Hence, the opposition parties have rightfully sought judicial probe into Imran Khan government and Pakistan military's failure to avert the disaster. The Interior Minister of Pakistan, Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed, has said that the situation can only be described as 'a natural calamity' and 'Allah Kay Kaam' (Allah's doings), caused due to 'extreme snowfall'.
This is a shameless attempt to divert the attention of people from a man-made tragedy. The fact remains that neither the National Disaster Management Authority nor the nearby military units or the local administration took timely action to save innocent lives. Forty-eight hours after the incident, the proper government agencies were able to evacuate people and vehicles, clear the roads and provide food and shelter to the needy. Pakistan Army was also pressed into action wherein photo-ops was undertaken to depict them as hero.
However, people who faced an icy night with their dear ones falling in distress now know how they were let down by 'their' Army which was only minutes away from them. The question is why the GoC 12 Division of the Pakistan Army did not order his team into action and save lives. Well, business for the hotels in Murree owned by the Pakistan military generals was booming. But while the Pakistan military men were counting notes, people were breathing their last.
January 6, 2022 will be remembered as another day when Pakistan Army put profit before people and not for the first time.
(Dr Amjad Ayub Mirza is an author and human rights activist from Mirpur in PoJK. He currently lives in exile in the UK)