Families of Pakistan snowstorm victims blame government for 'nightmare' in Murree

A woman cries inside an ambulance after she lost her family member during a heavy snowfall-hit area in Murree, some 28 miles (45 kilometers) north of the capital of Islamabad, Pakistan, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. (AP)
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Updated 09 January 2022

Families of Pakistan snowstorm victims blame government for 'nightmare' in Murree

  • At least 22 people died on Saturday in freezing temperatures while being stranded in their vehicles in Murree
  • Families say administration should have issued red alert, blocked vehicles from entering the area to watch snowfall

ISLAMABAD: It was on the evening of January 7 that a holiday to the Pakistani mountainside town of Murree to view the winter snowfall turned into a nightmare for Muhammad Bilal.

Bilal, 21, was among tens of thousands of visitors that thronged to Murree this weekend to see unusually heavy snowfall and ended up stuck in a major traffic jam on snow-clogged roads on Friday evening.

At around 4pm, Bilal, who hails from Mardan in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, called his family and said the group, which comprised Bilal, two relatives and a friend, were returning home because of the unmanageable snowfall. During another call at 9pm, Bilal told his family the group’s car was now stuck in a traffic jam.

“His last words were that they will reach back as soon as the road opened,” Muhammad Ghafoor, Bilal’s father, told Arab News via phone from his hometown of Katlang. 




In this photo provided by the Inter Services Public Relations, people walk past vehicles trapped in a heavy snowfall-hit area in Murree, some 28 miles (45 kilometers) north of the capital of Islamabad, Pakistan, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. (AP)

On Saturday morning, when Bilal’s mother called his cellphone to get an update on his whereabouts, a stranger picked up and told her that her son had been found dead in his car.

Bilal is among at least 22 people who died in Murree in freezing temperatures on the night between Friday and Saturday. Police say some of the victims froze to death in their cars, while others died from asphyxiation after inhaling exhaust fumes in snow-bound vehicles.

“This was so shocking and unbelievable that she [mother] almost fainted,” Ghafoor said. “Then we called on the numbers of the other persons who were with Bilal on the trip and got the same reply from another person .. they discovered their bodies after opening their car doors as they were not responding after multiple knocking on the windows.”

The Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) had predicted heavy snowfall in Murree and the Galiyat mountainous regions from January 6 to 9. But despite appeals by authorities to postpone travel plans due to bad weather and roadblocks, tens of thousands of snow-tourists arrived in Murree, 64 km (40 miles) northeast of the capital Islamabad, in the past two days. 




Women cry inside an ambulance after they lost their family members during a heavy snowfall-hit area in Murree, some 28 miles (45 kilometers) north of the capital of Islamabad, Pakistan, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. (AP)

The resort town built by the British in the 19th century as a sanatorium for colonial troops clutches the sides of steep hills and its narrow roads are jammed even in good weather. Critics of the government say local authorities were ill-equipped to handle the annual influx of snow-tourists but did not prepare to deal with an emergency amid unusually heavy snowfall. They say even though authorities warned last weekend that too many vehicles were trying to enter Murree, they failed to discourage hordes of day trippers from going up the mountain from the capital.

It was only on Saturday, after the first reports emerged that people may have died, that the administration jolted into action to clear roads and begin rescue work. The army and paramilitary troops were also then called in to assist. An operation to clear roads and rescue stranded people was ongoing on Sunday afternoon.

In a tweet on Saturday, Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has personally promoted tourism to Murree and its surrounding areas, appeared to be blaming the tourists for negligence.

“Unprecedented snowfall & rush of ppl proceeding without checking weather conditions caught district admin unprepared,” Khan said on Twitter.

Ghafoor blamed the government. 




Ambulance carry the dead body of victim after they lost their life after a heavy snowfall-hit area in Murree, some 28 miles (45 kilometers) north of the capital of Islamabad, Pakistan, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. (AP)

“We accept it as will of Allah,” he said of his son’s death. “But the government should have warned the tourists about severe weather conditions and closed the entry to the hill station to avoid the traffic congestion.”

Zahoor Ahmed, whose cousin was married to another victim, Sohail Ahmed, echoed the sentiment.

“We are not putting blame on anyone but timely response could have saved many lives,” he told Arab News. 

Like Bilal’s family, the Ahmeds too found out about Sohail’s passing because a stranger picked up his cellphone and informed them that he had been found dead with three others in a car. 

Local journalist Tayyab Gondol also traveled to Murree by public transport on Friday to enjoy the snow and said he survived and made it back only because he got off the bus and trundled through the snow on foot. 

“We were on public transport,” he told Arab News. “We were lucky that we were not having our own car, otherwise could have met the same fate.”

His cousin Naveed Iqbal, a police officer from Islamabad, however, was not so lucky. Iqbal died in his car with seven others — three daughters, a son and his sister, niece and nephew. 

When the nightmare struck on Friday evening, Iqbal called Gondol and asked for help, saying his car was stuck amid continuing snowfall.

“After talking to Iqbal, I called every responsible official CTO (chief traffic officer), Murree police officers, local administration and other high officials in Rawalpindi but no one responded with concrete actions,” Gondal said, adding that he kept sharing the live location of Iqbal with various officials but most responded that they were aware of the situation and promised that the roads would be clear “very soon.”

“I received his last message at 4am on Saturday in which he said they were still stuck on the same spot without any help,” Gondol said. 

He lamented that the government had only spring into action once news of the crisis went viral on social media. 

“The administration should have issued a red alert about the weather and snow and stopped vehicles at the toll plaza,” He added. “That could have saved many precious lives.”
 


Monsoon death toll climbs to 188 in flood-ravaged southwestern Pakistan

Updated 13 August 2022

Monsoon death toll climbs to 188 in flood-ravaged southwestern Pakistan

  • Provincial disaster management authority reports six new deaths over last 24 hours
  • 582 people have died in rain-related incidents across Pakistan since mid-June

QUETTA: The death toll from rain-related incidents since the onset of monsoon season has killed at least 188 in Balochistan, authorities said on Saturday, as rains continue to lash the southwestern Pakistani province, triggering flash floods.

Monsoon rains have wreaked havoc in Pakistan since mid-June, killing at least 582 people. Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province by size and its most impoverished one, has reported the highest number of casualties.  

The Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) recorded six new deaths in rain-relates incidents in the past 24 hours.

“Six more bodies were recovered in the last 24 hours in Balochistan’s Killa Abdullah and Lasbela districts who were swept away in flash floods due to heavy rains on Friday,” Meer Zia Langove, advisor to the chief minister on disaster management, told reporters in the provincial capital, Quetta.

PDMA Balochistan director general Naseer Khan Nasir said four out of Friday’s six deaths were recorded in Killa Abdullah district, where the victims were trying to cross a flooded road.

Many roads are impassable, and traffic has been suspended also on the Quetta-Karachi highway due to the overflowing of the Lunda River in the Lasbela district.

“Our teams are fully engaged with the National Highway Authority (NHA) to clear the roads. It will be opened for traffic in the next 24 hours,” Langove said.

“Twenty-six out of 34 districts in Balochistan are badly affected by monsoon rains and floods which destroyed 40,000 homes and crops cultivated on 500,000 acres of agricultural land.”

Last month, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif visited the province’s worst hit areas, ordered immediate aid for their residents, and set up a relief fund for flood victims.

According to Pakistan’s Meteorological Department (PMD), the coming week may bring even more torrential rains to the region.

“Flash floods are expected in Killa Saifullah, Loralai, Barkhan, Kohlu, Mosa Khel, Sherani, Sibbi, Bolan, Kalat Khuzdar Awaran, Turbat Panjgur and other cities of Balochistan,” the PMD said in a notification on Saturday.

Downpours are also forecast for the provinces of Punjab and Sindh province.


Pakistan to expand COVID-19 vaccination to children next month as cases rise

Updated 8 min 56 sec ago

Pakistan to expand COVID-19 vaccination to children next month as cases rise

  • Government expects to receive vaccines and special syringes by next week
  • Pakistan Medical Association says vaccine for children is safe and effective

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistani government said on Saturday it will start vaccinating children aged five to eleven against COVID-19 from mid-September as infection figures are again on the rise.

After reporting a significant decline in COVID-19 cases earlier this year, Pakistan did away with almost all coronavirus restrictions. It has been witnessing a spike in infections since June, although health authorities say the situation largely remains under control and has fully vaccinated against COVID-19 over 88 percent of the population aged above 12 years.

“We will be starting COVID-19 vaccination of children aged between five to eleven years by mid-September,” Muazzam Abbas Ranjha, a vaccination lead at the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Islamabad told Arab News.

“The process for procurement of the vaccine and special syringes for the purpose is underway, and we’ll be receiving them next week.”

Ranjha said that Pakistan has done “extremely well” in immunizing its population against the pandemic and that’s why the numbers of deaths and infections have remained low compared to the neighboring countries.

“Now it’s time to immunize our children against the disease to curb the virus spread,” he said. “It is vital to administer the vaccine to our children as well to immunize the whole population against the virus.”

The country has conducted 20,272 COVID-19 tests in the last 24 hours, out of which 728 turned out to be positive or 3.59 percent with three deaths. A total of 161 patients are in critical condition, the official data says.

Ranjha said the number of daily infections in the country was under control as the government was constantly monitoring the situation.

“There is nothing alarming so far, but the people should still keep following health guidelines like mask wearing and social distancing at public places to evade the infection,” he said.

Dr. Qaiser Sajjad, secretary general of the Pakistan Medical Association, told Arab News the vaccination of children would help boost general immunity.

“The scientific data available shows the vaccine for children is safe and effective,” he said, adding that the government should roll out an awareness before starting the drive.

“Developed countries have already started vaccination of the children to curb the virus, and it is highly recommended that we should also start it as quickly as possible.”


Summer home where Pakistani founder spent final days lives on as monument to his memory

Updated 13 August 2022

Summer home where Pakistani founder spent final days lives on as monument to his memory

  • Two-story wooden building called Quaid-e-Azam Residency was built by British in Ziarat Valley in 1892
  • It was a summer retreat of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, today one of Pakistan’s most widely visited heritage sites

QUETTA: A single bed, modest wooden furniture, and black and white photographs on the walls of a small bedroom in a 19th-century residence in southwest Pakistan present an unassuming setting. 

But this is no ordinary room: it has special significance for Pakistanis as the place where the country's founding father spent some of the last days of his life.  

The Ziarat, or Quaid-e-Azam, Residency, has a two-story wooden structure amidst a juniper forest and was built during British rule in 1892. Located in Ziarat Valley, a picturesque hill station in Balochistan province, the house was a summer retreat of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s Quaid-e-Azam (Great Leader). It was also where Jinnah stayed for two months as he tried to recover from a lung disease a year after the success of his movement to separate Pakistan from India on Aug. 14, 1947 after the end of British colonial rule. 

Decades later, people from across the country visit Ziarat to pay tribute to Jinnah's memory.

Chairs and a table used by Pakistani founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah for political meetings on display at his summer residence in Ziarat, Balochistan, on Aug. 2, 2022. (AN Photo)  

“We have read about the Quaid Residency in books and heard stories from our elders … but when I stepped inside the residency, my feelings changed,” Chanda Ashraf, a 21-year-old student from Gujranwala, told Arab News.  

“Inside this residency, I have experienced how the Quaid lived here and his existence was tangible,” she said. “I request all Pakistanis to visit this place once in their lifetime.”

The house has eight rooms, fitted with cedar wood. Jinnah’s bedroom is on the second floor, in front of his sister’s, Fatimah Jinnah, who took care of him in Ziarat.

Tourists take photos in front of Pakistani founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s summer residence in Ziarat, Balochistan, on Aug. 2, 2022. (AN Photo)

Jinnah had had tuberculosis since the 1930s, but hid his condition because he believed it would hurt him politically, historians say. In July 1948, Jinnah arrived in Quetta and journeyed to the higher retreat at Ziarat, where the Pakistani government sent the best doctors it could find to treat him. It was here that a diagnosis of tuberculosis and advanced lung cancer was confirmed. 

On August 13, on the eve of the first anniversary of the independence for which he had fought so hard, the founding father was moved to the lower altitude of Quetta and finally back to Karachi on September 11, 1948. 

Jinnah died later that night at 10:20 pm at his home in Karachi. He was 71 years old and Pakistan was a little over one. 

Today, the Quaid’s clothes and the tableware he and his sister had used at the Ziarat summer home are on display at the residency - now a museum and one of Pakistan’s most widely visited national heritage sites. 
The Quaid-e-Azam Residency has also appeared on the 100-rupee note since 2006.

A dining table used by Pakistan founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah is on display at his summer residence in Ziarat, Balochistan, on Aug. 2, 2022. (AN Photo)  

Muhammad Rahim, who for the past 19 years has been working as an official tour guide at the residency, said he was proud to be working at the house belonging to the man who had “struggled for an independent country for our future generations.”

“My late uncle Toti Khan had performed duties in the residency when Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah had come to live here back in the summer of 1948,” he told Arab News.  

Muhammad Rahim, a guide at the Quaid-e-Azam Residency, poses at the museum’s gallery with photos of Pakistani founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in Ziarat, Balochistan, on Aug. 2, 2022. (AN Photo)  

“Despite two janitors hired for cleaning Quaid’s residence, I clean the entire residency with my hands, because I consider it as my service for the Quaid.”

The building was damaged in 2013, when a blaze tore through its wooden structure after a grenade attack by a Baloch separatist group. It was restored within four months.

Balochistan has long been the scene of a low-level insurgency, and a few attacks have been reported in Ziarat district in recent years, but the province’s tourism minister, Abdul Khaliq Hazara says, told Arab News the security situation was normal and thousands of people visited Jinnah’s residence every year.

“The government has been developing the infrastructure in Ziarat to facilitate tourists,” he said. “The Quaid Residency is a national heritage.”

A visitor Mohamad Alam Qasim said: "Not just for Balochistan, this is Pakistan’s heritage. Quaid-e-Azam was our national hero. He was everyone's leader."


Pakistan condemns suicide blast targeting Saudi security forces in Jeddah

Updated 13 August 2022

Pakistan condemns suicide blast targeting Saudi security forces in Jeddah

  • Security forces were targeted while trying to arrest a suspect in a deadly 2015 mosque attack
  • Explosion injured three members of the security forces and a Pakistani resident

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan condemned on Saturday a suicide blast that targeted Saudi security forces during an attempt to arrest a man linked to a deadly 2015 bombing in the Kingdom.

Abdullah bin Zayed Abdulrahman Al-Bakri Al-Shehri detonated a suicide vest when security forces attempted to arrest him in Jeddah earlier this week, the Presidency of State Security said on Friday.

When the militant blew himself up, he died at the scene, with the explosion injuring three members of the security forces and a Pakistani resident.

“Pakistan strongly condemns the recent terrorist incident in Jeddah, resulting in injuries, including to a Pakistani national,” Pakistan’s foreign office said in a statement.

“The Government and people of Pakistan reiterate their full support for and deep solidarity with the leadership, government and brotherly people of Saudi Arabia against any threats to the Kingdom’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Al-Shehri was suspected of being a member of a militant cell that coordinated the 2015 suicide bombing of a mosque in Abha frequented by security force members.

Eleven members of the security forces and four Bangladeshi nationals were killed in the 2015 attack.


Finance division says Pakistan’s economy made headway despite challenges since independence

Updated 13 August 2022

Finance division says Pakistan’s economy made headway despite challenges since independence

  • The country is currently facing the daunting challenge of dealing with a mounting current account deficit, dwindling forex reserves
  • The finance division says its aspiration is to put Pakistan’s economy on higher growth trajectory through investment, efficiency, productivity

KARACHI: Pakistan’s finance division on Saturday brought out a comprehensive report on 75 years of the country’s economic journey, showing the economy had improved its growth potential over a period of time despite tough challenges.

Pakistan is poised to celebrate its 75th independence anniversary on Sunday.

The South Asian nation of over 220 million people is currently facing a daunting challenge of managing a stuttering economy, as it faces a huge current account deficit projected at nearly four percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The country’s foreign exchange reserves have also been consistently depleting in recent months, though officials say Pakistan will soon be in a position to stabilize its external sector with the assistance of friendly countries and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“Pakistan’s GDP rose from $3bn to $383bn from 1950-2022,” the report said. “In 1950, GDP was 1.8 percent and in 2022 it is 5.97 percent.”

The report noted the per capita income in Pakistan also rose from $86 to $1,798 within the same period.

“Exports rose from $355.5 million to $72.0 billion from 1950-2022,” it added, “while Tax Revenues rose from Rs. 0.31 billion to Rs. 6,126.1 billion from 1950-2022.”

The finance division said Pakistan only inherited 34 industrial units at the time of its independence out of the 921 currently operating in the country.

“FDI [Foreign Direct Investment] increased from $1.2 million in FY1950 to $1,867.8 million in FY2022,” it noted, “while the remittances increased from $0.14 billion in FY1973 to $31.2 billion in FY2022.”

“Pakistan has made significant headway in spite of the many challenges that it has faced,” the report maintained. “The nation was able to transform itself into a semi-industrial economy and hub for business activities.”

The finance division added its aspiration was to put the economy on a higher growth trajectory through greater investment, efficiency and productivity.