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May the forces be with us

Aid workers in earthquake-hit Pakistan have found the help of the army indispensable, writes WFP spokesperson Robin Lodge, in an article which first appeared on the Guardian Unlimited website.

Aid workers in earthquake-hit Pakistan have found the help of the army indispensable, writes WFP spokesperson Robin Lodge, in an article which first appeared on the Guardian Unlimited website.

There's an old mantra in the humanitarian aid world and many still live by it: whatever you do, don't let the aid get near the men with guns. Humanitarian assistance, they say, should never be entrusted to armies.

Well, a few days ago I was in the jump seat of a Pakistan army MI-17 helicopter, flying low over the crushed ruins of Balakot, only recently a thriving market town and tourist centre, reduced to rubble in a few seconds on October 8. Not a single building was left standing.

We wheeled away up the narrow, steep sided Kaghan valley, its pine forests scarred by scores of landslides that blocked the road snaking up the valley below.

Carrying food

We were carrying food - two tonnes of pulses from WFP and two tonnes of wheat flour from the Pakistan government - for the inhabitants of the upper valley, who had been cut off by land since the earthquake struck.

They were the lucky ones: their food stocks had only just run out when we reached them, and Kaghan has a helipad.

Further up the valley, towards the snowy peaks that mark the start of the Himalayas, there are tens of thousands of people who have received nothing. And the only way to reach them is by foot or by mule. You want mules? Try the Pakistan army: they've got them too.

Helicopters

But, first of all, let's talk about helicopters. It was clear from the outset that, with so many roads destroyed by the quake, helicopters were the only means of delivering desperately needed assistance to hundreds of thousands of survivors.

We're not just talking about food; WFP took on the responsibility of providing air support for the entire UN response. That meant airlifting tents, blankets, warm clothing and medical supplies - and ferrying back the injured for medical attention.

Worldwide appeal

This always had to be an international effort. We need you. You need us
Lieutenant-Colonel Safdar, helicopter pilot with the Pakistan Army
So WFP issued a worldwide appeal for funding for helicopters. They are expensive beasts: just keeping an MI-8 in the air for an hour costs about US$8,000 (£4,675).

We said we needed $100m for six months, but pointed out that most of this would be needed to supply people in the first few weeks before winter descended - when we still had a chance to keep them alive.

Lack of funds

Clearly, we failed to convince the donors. Three weeks into the operation, we had raised less than 10 percent of what we needed.

We only had 13 MI-8s flying, each of them capable of carrying just two tonnes a sortie at these altitudes. And with the funds running out, we faced having to ground these in less than two weeks.

And that was when - to the horror of the "purists" in the humanitarian aid world - we turned to the army.

Coordinated supply line

At that stage, they had deployed 45 helicopters, many of them MI-17s, with payloads three times greater than those of the MI-8s - and pilots familiar with the terrain and conditions.

What they lacked was a coordinated supply line of appropriate aid materials. That was where we could help.

So that was why I was sitting behind the right shoulder of Lieutenant-Colonel Safdar, our helicopter pilot to Kaghan.

International effort

"You know, we couldn't possibly do this alone," he told me. "This always had to be an international effort. We need you. You need us."

Damn right. And it's not just the helicopters. When we couldn't find non-government organisations or even volunteers to distribute the food, we delivered by road.

Pakistani soldiers put down their guns and hefted the sacks over their shoulders to bring the food to the people who needed it. In about half of the 90 or so army-run camps for people displaced by the earthquake, the army is distributing food delivered by WFP.

No agonising needed

And it's not just the Pakistan army. WFP's helicopters have been supplemented by Chinooks from the Royal Air Force and CH-53s from Nato.

As a result, we can now shift upwards of 100 tonnes of supplies a day to areas inaccessible by road. And I haven't even started to talk about the mules.

The lesson learned from this is that we should not agonise over petty points of principle when it comes to working with the armed forces in emergencies caused by natural disasters.

Combining efforts

It is always pretty clear when armies or militias are in the business of ending, rather than saving lives, or have lapsed into abuses of civilians. We know full well when to stay away.

We have no role to play in the politics of Pakistan or Pakistan-administered Kashmir. But when it comes to humanitarian aid, all forces should combine efforts wherever possible.

We need to examine new ways, possibly an efficient system of standby agreements, to work with responsible armed forces in emergencies like the earthquake in Kashmir. That would give us a far better chance of providing an effective joint response from day one.