The Pakistani government rushed to deliver tents and other emergency aid to its underdeveloped Balochistan Province, where a 6.4-magnitude earthquake Wednesday left 200 people dead and 15,000 homeless.
Its relief work there continues an effort by the new government to reach out to this troubled southwestern region, the poorest of Pakistan's five provinces and home to a longtime separatist movement.
"While these catastrophes bring undeniable misery, they also bring unprecedented opportunity for rehabilitation which can easily be turned into actual development," says Rashida Dohad, cofounder of the Omar Asghar Khan Development Foundation, which has operated in northern Pakistan since a deadly earthquake there in 2005.
"There is an acute feeling in the underdeveloped province of its marginalization from the rest of the country," an editorial in the country's largest English daily, The Dawn, said on Thursday. "Failure to respond to its needs at a time of crisis will only intensify such feelings of alienation."
The earthquake struck the northern part of Balochistan, near Afghanistan, before dawn on Wednesday, destroying as many as 1,500 homes and triggering landslides.
"We were tossed out of our beds like dolls," Waheed Akram, a college administrator, describes over the phone from Quetta, the provincial capital, about 40 miles south of the epicenter. As aftershocks continued through the night, he says, he joined thousands others in the city who spent the frigid night outdoors in makeshift tents, cars, and parks. Some slept in the back of trucks.
Pakistan's National Disaster Management Authority, the Army, and local paramilitary units from the region were mobilized on Wednesday to carry out rescue efforts, distributing items such as blankets, tents, and jackets.
International aid organizations and other countries, including the United States, China, and India, also began to offer assistance. The Red Cross sent medical workers and distributed tents. The World Health Organization and World Food Program said it would send medicine, food, and other aid.
Rescue teams were still attempting to reach the more remote areas in the province, often in freezing temperatures.
The Pakistani government's quake relief comes amid an ongoing effort to improve relations with its largest but often neglected province. One day before the quake President Asif Ali Zardari, himself of Balochi tribal descent, cleared a detailed road map to find a "resolution to all their [Balochi] issues" for which the government is "ready to go any extent," according to his party officials.
The proposal outlined a strategy of three "R"s: reconciliation with political forces, rebuilding institutions, and reallocating natural resources.
His words contrasted sharply with those of previous governments. Balochistan, the last state to formally join the Pakistani union in 1948, has had a simmering nationalist and separatist militancy since 1971, when it was first crushed in a military operation.
Under President Pervez Musharraf, who ruled from 1999 until this August, the federal government's relationship with the province hit bottom. The Pakistani military was deployed across the province starting in 2004. Hundreds of Balochis disappeared and were killed as the government cracked down on suspected dissenters and separatists. The province nearly broke into war two years ago after the Army killed prominent Balochi leader Akbar Khan Bugti.
One of the first points of business for the new government, which took office in March, was to issue an official state apology to the Balochi people earlier this year. Since then, the government has made additional goodwill gestures, such as freeing prominent Balochi prisoners en masse. Last month the president's top security adviser said all Balochi political prisoners' cases would be reviewed and some people released.
An editorial in the English-language Daily Times said Tuesday, the day before the earthquake, that the government "is in a good position to address the Balochistan problem." It "has been able to tone down the insurgency that showed no signs of abating during the tenure of the previous government."
But it might take more than goodwill gestures and a impressive disaster relief effort to win Balochi hearts and minds. "There are still issues like the military's presence in Balochistan and the fate of the people who are still in jails – these are also immediate concerns for a lot of families," says Alia Amirali, a doctoral candidate at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad who studies Balochi nationalism.
After the 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan, which killed 75,000 people and displaced millions, the government compensated every family who had lost a family member with about $1,250. This time, victims' families will receive twice that amount, the government announced Wednesday.