Pakistani Quake Survivors Welcome U.S. Aid

The United States sent helicopters and military hospital units to assist relief efforts following the worst earthquake in Pakistan's history. Desperate earthquake survivors welcome the American assistance, despite criticism from Pakistani hard-liners.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated northern Pakistan last month, the US pledged more than $150 million in aid. It dispatched military helicopters, warships, mobile hospitals and around a thousand troops to help in the relief effort. American officials say the primary mission is to provide humanitarian assistance, but they said they're also trying to improve the battered image of the US in a country where anti-American sentiment is widespread. NPR's Ivan Watson traveled to Pakistan and filed this story.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

An Army Chinook helicopter with American flags prominently taped to its sides lands at a makeshift helicopter pad in the demolished town of Parvez(ph) at the start of the Himalayas.

(Soundbite of helicopter operations)

WATSON: Here, Pakistani soldiers unload the chopper's cargo of tents donated by the Chinese government. Hundreds of Pakistani earthquake survivors watch from a distance, squinting in the dust and wind thrown up by the Chinook's two rotors. Minutes later, the helicopter takes off. The road from Parvez through the rest of Pakistan is blocked by avalanches, but it only takes the Chinook a half-hour to reach an air base in Islamabad where Pakistani soldiers quickly get to work filling the chopper up with a fresh load of supplies.

Unidentified Pilot: (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: One of the pilots, Chief Warrant Officer Charles Russell, says his mission here is not only humanitarian.

Chief Warrant Officer CHARLES RUSSELL (US Army): America is viewed as, well, I've heard the word `infidel,' you know, and I think we're changing that perception. I think we've overcoming that. You know, that's why we put the flags on the side of the aircraft, as our command tells us. That flag is our weapon right now.

Mr. TEMBER AHMED KHAN(ph) (Analyst): But there is a general, simmering, low-key anti-Americanism in our societies.

WATSON: Tember Ahmed Khan is an analyst and former Pakistani diplomat. He says the US aid effort is already doing a lot to combat anti-Americanism here, which skyrocketed after the US invasion of Iraq and the American overthrow of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.

Mr. KHAN: Suddenly, I mean, you know, for--ever since Afghanistan, some forces and some political forces in Pakistan have kept up this fiction alive that after Afghanistan the next victim would be Pakistan, and now you suddenly see these huge Chinook helicopters carrying tents and medical supplies and a field hospital.

WATSON: In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, which left more than three million people homeless, the government of Pakistani President Pervaiz Musharraf appeared to be in shock. Islamist militant groups stepped into the vacuum, and were among the first to mount rescues of people trapped under the rubble. Not long after, Washington pledged to support Musharraf and joined an international relief effort that now includes the United Nations and NATO. Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, here the American soldiers are not armed or even wearing body armor. Rear Admiral Mike LeFavre(ph) is the US commander here.

Rear Admiral MIKE LeFAVRE (US Navy): The experience that they thought that hey, the Americans were here--you know, only here to bomb people and so forth, and now they see what the US is all about and that is to help friends.

WATSON: A US mobile Army surgical hospital, or MASH, now stands in the quake-devastated city of Muzaffarabad. In one of the medical tents, uniformed doctors carefully moved a traumatized 65-year-old Pakistani woman who recently emerged from surgery.

(Soundbite of screaming)

Major PAUL MIDDLESTADT (Head Nurse): It's all right. You're OK. You're all right.

(Soundbite of screaming)

WATSON: Major Paul Middlestadt(ph), the head nurse here, explained the woman's injuries.

Maj. MIDDLESTADT (Head Nurse): Basically, I think she was crushed in the structure when the structure came down on top of her. When she came to us initially, we thought perhaps we could plate and pin her ankle, lower extremity. Actually, it was too badly damaged. And basically, what they did there was they went ahead and amputated her leg below the knee.

WATSON: Middlestadt spends most of his time at a base in Germany treating American soldiers wounded in Iraq. He says with a prosthesis there's a chance this woman will be able to walk again someday. But he says he probably won't be able to monitor the progress of his patients in Pakistan.

Maj. MIDDLESTADT: You know, I see my soldiers come back and talk to me, and they said how, `I'm doing a lot better.' These people I don't know, you know, so that's hard. I'm sorry.

WATSON: Outside the MASH unit, crowds of Pakistanis watch from the streets as another American helicopter takes off.

(Soundbite of helicopter liftoff)

WATSON: The earthquake survivors gathered here rejected condemnations of the new American military presence by some hard-line Islamist politicians. This man named Shabir Hussein(ph) said he welcomed the US help.

Mr. SHABIR HUSSEIN: The Americans helping us. They go back after helping us, so I mean, nobody's angry about that. Everybody's happy that they are here.

WATSON: Several weeks ago, however, an American helicopter crew delivering aid reported a failed rocket attack on their aircraft in northern Pakistan. Pakistan has long had an al-Qaeda presence. A Western diplomat here says he's concerned the American relief effort could, quote, "take a hit from terrorist groups." But, he said, the American operation would likely continue working until spring, and added that it would require sustained American assistance to change the US image in Pakistan. Ivan Watson, NPR News.

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