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Posing for Pakistani Flood Relief
Diplomatic Pouch / December 1, 2010

By Larry Luxner

Rainfall drenched the Pakistani ambassador’s residence one recent evening as several hundred guests gathered under a backyard tarp to sip champagne, smoke fine Dominican cigars and gawk at a dozen beautiful young ladies prancing around in dresses designed by Pakistani fashion guru Deepak Perwani.

Yet the drizzle was nothing compared to the torrential rains that earlier this year inundated one-fifth of Pakistan — an area the size of Italy — and left an estimated 20 million people homeless.

The Nov. 17 gathering, billed as “Fashion for Pakistan Flood Relief,” raised at least $20,000 for the cause — though 10,000 such events would be required in order to generate the $20 billion Pakistan needs to rebuild its destroyed infrastructure.

“We are here not only to see the wonderful products of Deepak Perwani, but also to raise awareness of the tragedy of 20 million people who have been rendered homeless by these floods,” Pakistani Ambassador Hussein Haqqani told his audience.

“Nowadays, natural disasters seem to fall into two categories: those covered by CNN and those not covered by CNN. Unfortunately, the Pakistani floods have fallen into the second category, even though they’ve been described as the largest single tragedy since the creation of the United Nations,” he said.

“While there’s been lots of discussion of the political consequences, it’s just a reflection of the shallowness of how we approach things,” Haqqani complained. “We’ve seen more articles about whether or not this flood will result in a military coup or more American support of Pakistan than about the tragedy itself. We had 120 years of rainfall in only seven days in our northwestern province, and the international effort that has been clearly aimed at providing assistance has fallen short.”

Haqqani said $500 million in U.S. assistance to Pakistan will be redirected to emergency relief from the July floods, but that the country still urgently needs support from individual donors. Even though the death toll was below 2,000, the number of Pakistanis whose lives were disrupted by the flooding exceeds the combined total of individuals affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the earthquake that struck Haiti early this year.

To that end, all the money collected from last week’s event — participants paid $100 each to attend — will be used directly to rebuild homes and provide basic agricultural supplies and livestock to displaced people in hard-hit Sindh province. Additional funds will come through the sale of Perwani’s designs to American women familiar with his work over the last 10 years.

Washington attorney Shannon Grewer, who with Ayesha Bagmohamed established the Virginia-based nonprofit, which works closely with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“The people affected by these floods are not the Taliban, they are not terrorists and they don’t hate Americans,” Grewer said in a press release promoting her NGO. “They are predominantly women and children living in substandard conditions, and will likely remain in these camps for at least six months until reconstruction efforts are far enough advanced for them to return home and begin rebuilding their lives.”

Haqqani, a former adviser to Benazir Bhutto, has been Islamabad’s ambassador in Washington since April 2008. This is clearly his biggest crisis since arriving here.

“Our first priority is saving lives, making sure there are no waterborne diseases, and that chidlren remain on track for getting their immunizations,” said the envoy. “People must be able to go back to their farms, homes and villages — inshallah — and not only rebuild, but build back better.”

Following Haqqani at the podium was Jonah Blank, policy director for South and Southeast Asia at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Blank recently traveled to Pakistan with his boss, committee chairman Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), surveying the disaster by helicopter.

“We flew over one of the largest cities of Pakistan, and it was completely submerged — millions of people. Can you imagine Washington, D.C., being turned into a lake? Multiply that by five, six, seven times and you begin to get at the extent of the devastation,” he said.

“What I’ve tried to do is redirect as much money as possible from long-term planning to the immediate needs of flood-inflicted areas. One sees that the Pakistan of July is not the Pakistan of August. Everything has changed, and all plans for development have to change with that.”

Perwani, whom the ambassador calls “a Pakistani of immense talent,” implored his already sympathetic audience to focus on Pakistan’s beauty and not its suffering.

“The international media has always projected a negative image of our country. But there’s a lot more to a civilization than just bombs. We also have culture, art, film and music,” he said, noting Pakistan’s 5,000 years of history. “Fashion is a very important reflection of the time we live in. This is not just for the international media, this is what we wear every day.”

Perwani ended his speech by imploring the handful of journalists present to “at least try to print a positive story about us once in awhile, not something negative all the time.”

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