Interview: Dennis Joseph, Church World Service Director in Pakistan

As the death toll for the massive 7.6-magnititude earthquake in South Asia continues to rise, aid workers are flying in to help facilitate and manage the chaotic situation. According to news reports from the region, officials believe that up to 35,000 may have lost their lives from the quake, and 2.5 million are in need of water, shelter, food, and medical treatment.

The following is an interview with Dennis Joseph, an Associate Director of Operations at the Church World Service division in Pakistan/Afghanistan, who was in the United States attending a trauma training seminar when the earthquake hit. He left for Pakistan on Monday evening.

When you arrive, what will you do first? What are some of the things you are planning?

When I arrive I will go to my office in Mansehra and I will drive to the impacted area, where I live. I will go straight to where there are two trucks of food that will arrive Tuesday morning. We have staff and stocks of medicine, so will plan to arrange some medical camps and emergency refugee camps. Most of what I do will begin on Wednesday, but I heard a team has arrived from Karachi already and have gone to Kashmir, the most affected area.

I heard your family was near the epicenter of the quake. Are they safe?

Yes, my wife is there and so is my son. She told me that when this happened, people were really scared and even after the quake; they did not go inside their homes because of the aftershocks. They are just coming in and out of the house, staying outside at night and if they enter the house, they will not go to the top story.

She opted to stay back, and she is working with our CWS team to give help. My son was out in the field and he took some pictures of the affected area. I’m surprised they opted to stay back because everyone was very shaken up.

On the first day, she told me the aftershocks were felt every ten minutes, and it continued until Monday. In the initial two days [after the quake], I would be on the phone with them and they would tell me the shocks were happening at that moment. The frequency of those shocks was high, and some of them hit really hard. People are still scared, and hospitals are still empty. Doctors and nurses have taken the beds outside and have made make-shift operations there.

What does a natural disaster like this do to your faith? Does it strengthen or shake it?

I think in such situations we tend to be drawn toward God.

How important is it for Christians to respond at a time like this?

Being a Christian myself, our basic teaching is to help those in need, and there is a really, really great need. I’m just telling you what I’m hearing from people there, and they say there are areas that are much worse that what the media is covering. Islamabad is one of the least hit areas, and there are some regions of Pakistan that were neglected.

What about to those who are critical of how the aid is being handled?

I know it’s a chaotic situation and we are not very organized, but this is a huge loss and need. People are still numb from the shock and they are not able to think straight and manage things. The aid is coming in, and we will be managing it.

Do you fear that the U.S. government and U.S.-based aid groups will give less than anticipated to the disaster in Pakistan because this nation is still recovering from its own disaster?

I don’t really know how Katrina will affect the aid given to this area, but our expectations for the U.S. are very high. From what I am hearing, we are already getting support, and President Bush seemed very promising in his speech Sunday night. We will really need the aid and it will be a very long recovery process.

You’re going back to Pakistan tonight. When you see the destruction in pictures and read the stories, what do you feel?

Well, looking at the dead corpses, I have a very helpless feeling. But I’m cutting short my visit – I was supposed to return on an Oct. 17 flight – but my wife has been preparing for me to return. I know it will be a very difficult time. There are many people I know that probably died also. I know there is a staff member in Karachi whose family died, from what I’ve heard.

You’ve worked with Church World Service in Pakistan for 20 years now. How does this compare to other efforts you’ve taken part in?

This is the worst kind of experience we’ve ever had in the last 100 years, so it will be the biggest effort in my time.

Are there any general comments you would like to make?

I’m praying and hoping that we will get more survivors. It’s not hopeless there, but help must come swiftly. In these cases, time is the main essence and issue. If you don’t reach there in time you will lose lots of lives.

Right now, many of the roads are blocked and access is a big problem. This is a Himalayan range, and is prone to a lot of landslides, so there are roads that may have been blocked. I heard some roads have been washed out. We haven’t prepared for such a situation. Please pray for communications as we do recovery work.

Church World Service Pakistan/Afghanistan has had offices and relief and development operations in Pakistan for more than 25 years, and is working with government, the United Nations and other international relief groups to implement coordinated and facilitated response to survivors.