Locals on front line of relief

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Locals on front line of relief

If an earthquake suddenly hit your neighborhood, taking down buildings and homes, who would be the first to pull survivors from the piles of brick and rubble? It would be the villagers who managed to survive, not foreign rescue workers. Foreign salvage and emergency aid can barely manage to arrive during the first week - the golden hour -after a disaster. In the case of Nepal, which was recently devastated by a monstrous earthquake, it took at least two days to organize a rescue team from abroad and get it to Kathmandu.

More time was lost getting equipment through the airport inspection. I do not have to be there to imagine how chaotic that small airport would have been, with a flood of people dispatched from more than 300 international organizations with boxes of aid, medical supplies and rescue equipment. Even after a team finally made it through the airport, it would still take a couple more days to get to the crisis zone after a tumultuous and challenging trip across destroyed roads.

As organizations and countries worked to get aid to the scene, survivors would have desperately searched for the missing, trying to save what lives they could. Villagers are the hidden heroes in this Himalayan country, which was struck by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake. In excess of 8,000 people without homes relied on one another to fight and survive the heat, injuries, losses, hunger and devastation.

World Vision staff at the crisis zone shared their stories. Residents rummaged with their bare hands through rubble to search and pull out those still trapped inside. No shops raised their prices, despite a dearth of supplies. Those whose homes suffered less damage willingly shared their remaining rooms with injured neighbors.

I am not surprised. I have been a witness to the same display and practice of humility in times of disasters in Iran and Pakistan over the past 15 years.

It is not just the victims. The Nepalese government mobilized 90 percent of its military troops on rescue missions, and volunteers from the Red Cross and other nonprofit organizations worked day and night. Textbooks on international aid say the primary responsibility to respond to disaster lies with the people and the government. If a crisis is beyond the capacity of a nation to deal with it, international society should help to ease the pain of the victims and assist them in getting back to their everyday lives.

The manual also emphasizes that rescue and restoration work should focus on upholding the human dignity of the victims. The keyword in humanitarian assistance is assistance. International society “assists” and does not initiate rescue endeavors.

The news feeds from Nepal, however, raise questions about if such basic aid codes are respected at all. Western media like CNN and BBC have portrayed the Nepalese as helpless, desperately in need of relief and crying out for help from the outside world. It is as if none of the salvage and relief work can be done without international assistance.

Local media has been no different. Every time a major crisis occurs, many are determined to rush to the scene. A friend of mine asked if she should go in my place so I could finish my studies. I told her that in a crisis-hit zone that requires organized and professional help, good will and intent could do more harm than good and advised her to donate money instead.

Aid, funds and workers have all been great in helping Nepal as it struggles to pull itself together. It is estimated that Nepal will need $2 billion for relief and restoration work. Overseas aid usually lasts six months or a year at most. Once global organizations pack up and leave, the residents will be left to themselves.

Based on my experience, aid and relief activities shouldn’t be run unilaterally and wrapped up by outside organizations. Everything should be done after discussion and agreement with residents.

From emergency food, water, medical supplies and shelter to establishing alarm systems and residential training to better cope with disasters, all things must be done in order.

If just 1 percent of the $2 billion were spent to enhance disaster preparedness and aptitude for residents, it would have a lasting effect. I cannot shake the words of an aid worker who lamented that more people could have been saved from the earthquake in Nepal if residents had known basic cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or had tools with them to dig people out.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff

JoongAng Ilbo, May 30, Page 29

*The author is a relief worker.

by Han Bi-ya

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