A resource for humanitarian reporting in Pakistan

Aerial view of a destroyed bridge in Upper Swat valley during floods in 2010. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Most of us have travelled by road to Northern Areas alongside the twists and turns that characterise the spectacular banks of the river Indus. The lush scenery was not so pleasant in the aftermath of flooding in Pakistan.

“When we visited Swat (a popular destination along the route) in 2010, most bridges connecting the valley were found destroyed,” says Arif Bilgaumi, a well-regarded architect and urban planner based in Karachi.

Arif was alluding to the risk of debris from illegal construction such as dhabas, hotels and restaurants, along the river banks which gets dislodged during natural calamities and destroys everything in its wake. He was talking to reporters from a wide array of news organisations across the country attending a workshop on humanitarian reporting recently organised by the Centre of Excellence in Journalism at IBA in Karachi.

I was auditing the workshop for a day and found it personally exciting for two reasons. It brought me back to the ‘roots’, or a professional teaching environment in Pakistan, since I haven’t stepped foot in a local classroom in nearly ten years. Secondly, the training program was well thought out between experts who kept the sessions engaging and informative. Mind you I was not appraising the workshop for which I’m neither qualified or inclined. Think of my role as a participating observer.

Workshop participants. Photo: author.

It was refreshing to interact with marginalised media workers; a reporter from Quetta, the capital city of the restive Balochistan province, for instance told me how their head office in Karachi is often not interested in anything but terrorism and crisis related stories. As if people in Balochistan have no other life. Pakistanis of all shades and colours complain about similar treatment by the Western media.

The combination of expert knowledge and its professional delivery came in to stark focus on the issue of crisis reporting in areas where the state lacks infrastructure. A senior member of a development organisations talked about their role in creating national awareness. Aid is often the first organised collective response in such areas. Reporters of resource constrained media organisations often rely on ‘aid vehicles’ to reach effected areas.

Understandably, this part of the session was off record. Often these areas consists of non-state actors engaged in their own development efforts and agendas. The remaining session was on nurturing a ‘situational awareness’, safety, strategies to negotiate the demands of various stakeholders, traveling to and across the terrain and of course reporting in those conditions.

It was a welcome change to be in my country and talk constructively in Urdu on sensitive issues. It reminded me of a sharing session on the controversial Tiananmen Square Protest I attended in Hong Kong few years back.

The workshop program, classroom facilities and visiting experts wouldn’t be out of place in any of the conferences or universities outside Pakistan that I have had the pleasure of attending. Near the end instructors sneaked in an ‘anonymous questionnaire’ that was in fact a psychological well-being test presumably for reporters often working under stressful conditions.

By the end of the day I was nostalgic of my time as a sub-editor at The News. There is after all a charm and a sense of purpose when doing good old fashioned journalism; a powerful method of storytelling in the service of the public.

Some resources recommended by Arif Bilgaumi for reporting on natural disasters in Pakistan.

The Grim Underbelly

Two interesting events happened one fine morning right before Christmas that reminded me of home. The first one came in the form of a phone call from Mc Donald`s recruitment confirming my place as a crew member. Funny thing, I was left saying ‘hello, hello, can you hear me… hello?? courtesy of a poor connection. I actually found out about my selection via a text message which I received right after the darn call.  It was a sharp reminder of our over burdened cellular networks back at home and yes this stuff does happen in UK. Quite frequently actually. Oh and I use an O2 sim in case you are wondering.

The second event was the sound of bells ringing outside my window from what seemed like … a cotton candy man!? Impossible I thought as I reached out the window. It wasn’t a cotton candy man but in fact a pickup truck with all sorta trinkets and used items in the back. The driver was sticking his arm out of the truck giving a go at a tiny bell in a manner that can only be described as an English teen dabey wala!

Perhaps the twisted hyper drive my mind is going at these days is fooling me to imagine things or maybe I am just missing the sunlight. Hard to tell, but what I do know for sure is that the creative writing business is not the easiest professions in the world.

When I was coming here I had expected this. Months of networking and pestering people, getting assignments, days of sitting in front of a blank screen trying to write a good story and struggling with a deadline. It all sounded very fascinating living a bohemian existence, something I have always wanted. But every dream has a moldy and an abrasive underbelly; the part of your journey where you put in all the shit you had to take from people, the hard work and sweat that went in, the uncertainty, always the bloody uncertainty!, living on a simple budget, time away from loved ones and the cold weather. You are always caught unawares trying to deal with this underbelly. It`s the acid test.

But that`s how it is here in UK. 90% underbelly and 10% recreation, which I daresay is not a healthy combination. And what really takes the piss out of you is that even the slightest distractions can have disastrous consequences. For instance lending money to a mate is always a risky affair which I learned the hard way. Then last month I got a bit carried away with the end of term celebrations and consequently fucked my food `n utilities budget for a horrendous two weeks. Imagine smoke coming out of your mouth with every breath, in your own bloody room!

I like here hair though

But what really prompted an emergency response happened couple of weeks ago. I woke up feeling extremely hungry and depressed as hell. It was snowing outside, the sky was pale grey as usual and my room reeked of cigarettes mixed in god knows what else. I made an effort to climb out of bed and glanced at the mirror. There were these menacing bags under my eyes and my belly was flat to the point of caving in. I looked like an anorexic chicks fantasy. This was so not on. Something had to change.

It has been two weeks sine then. I`m writing again for the first time in months, my body is in that familiar painful state you get the day after a heavy workout, my weight is getting on track and last week I gave my first proper job interview in UK. Although I didn`t get the job I am content with my recovery process.

It has been a testing few months, everything has taken its toll but I have learned a lot from these adversities. I`m quite proud of myself. There are good times ahead.