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Winning hearts, minds

How earthquake relief changed a village in Pakistan Add to ...

Another aid worker talked about the reaction among displaced women when they received a modest sum of money to help them survive after the flood: "It was the first time they had cash in their hands that wasn't controlled by their husbands," she said. "One woman told me, 'I no longer feel I'm just a tool for cooking and cleaning.' " Some humanitarian experts consider this kind of talk highly dangerous, because it could expose aid workers to violent backlash. It could also limit the reach of aid into conservative parts of the country, resulting in more death and misery.

But aid workers who participated in the 2005 earthquake response say the effort had the opposite effect, opening up places where foreigners were not previously welcome.

That's also the consensus of the villagers who live in the Kaghan Valley, at the end of a rocky path among the peaks, in the tiny settlement known as Suwan. Everybody there agrees that locals have a new-found enthusiasm for the outside world. Village children who watched military engineers repair a nearby road are now convinced they want a career with the Pakistan army; those who marvelled at aid workers talking on satellite phones have gone away to work for telecom companies.

But their enthusiasm is also mixed with nostalgia for old ways of life, and an understanding that exposure to the outside world has also, ironically, threatened the village's long-term survival.

Suwan has been largely isolated since its founding in 1832, relying on its own corn, wheat, milk, walnuts, honey, apricots, and whatever else could be farmed so close to the wind-swept summits. Villagers even wove their own clothing.

Twenty-four of the 700 residents died in the earthquake, and it shattered their carefully cultivated independence. Faced with a hard winter and no shelter, many became refugees in a nearby city. People who had never seen an electrical socket were suddenly exposed to television and music videos.

Only about 300 people remain in Suwan these days. They seem grateful for the Australian aid group that bulldozed a new path to their village, clearing away landslide debris. They are especially thankful for the white helicopters from the Aga Khan Foundation, which took away the injured and brought supplies in the initial days of the emergency. Nobody doubts that outside assistance saved the village.

But when they sit around the campfire in the late evening, parents grumble about how the foreign involvement affected their children.

"Before, young men wanted to stay here and become farmers," said Saeed Shah, 39, cradling his three-year-old son. "Now they go away and work for NGOs."

His brother, Sabir Shah, 46, nodded solemnly.

"They behave more selfishly," he said. "The traditions of independence, self-respect, loving each other, all of this has vanished."

The older brother is among those who moved away, having relocated his family to a nearby city. He returns to Suwan only to visit relatives and help with the family's logging business; forestry has replaced farming as the village's economic backbone. Now he sits near the ruins of his old house, still unrepaired, adding timbers from the shattered building to the fire for warmth.

"The aim of NGOs is to change the Islamic culture of our society," he said.

Pressed for an example, he spoke about the dangers of allowing men and women to work together in city offices, describing such mixing of the sexes as "un-Islamic."

His brother, Saeed, added a reference to the war raging elsewhere in these mountains: "Winning hearts and minds is good, but throwing bombs and chocolates at the same time is not the way."

Saeed's 25-year-old son listened quietly at the edge of the firelight, not wanting to interrupt his elders. In the morning, however, hiking the narrow footpaths, Saqib Ali Shah admitted that he does not share their conservative views about women's role in society. Nor does he want to live in the mountains like his forefathers; after all the trees have been chopped down, he says, the local economy will collapse.

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