MANSHERA - Muhammad Ahmad was just sixteen when his world was turned upside down and his dream of becoming a teacher was shattered. On that ill-fated day of October 8, 2005, Ahmad, like all other students his age, was in his class studying,when the picturesque village of Sanghar in Balakot was devastated and his life was forever changed.
Almost two years after the earthquake, Ahmad, now almost 18, like all other victims of the earthquake, still trembles with fear and bears the scars, which will not be healed for a long, long time. These scars, mostly invisible, can never be healed and the survivors will bear these scars to their graves.
Now living in Manshera, some 50km from Balakot, Ahmad has a terrible time recounting his experience of the earthquake. Trying to hide his fear by smiling and fudging of questions he said rather reluctantly, "When the earthquake struck and the walls of the classroom started to cave in on us, all of us rushed outside, all the time muttering dua (prayers) for our safety."
Almost 60 students along with a science teacher from Balakot, Tahir Elahi, were buried alive in Ahmad's school, Government High School, Sangar.
A visibly shaken Ahmad further said that when he got outside all the houses and buildings were reduced to rubble. "Only a mosque in front of my school was intact. I saw my friends, relatives, acquaintances buried under the rubble. Seeing all the destruction and death I could not control the shivers and tremors which gripped me; I was helpless in helping anyone. My mind was frozen and I was just sort of paralyzed."
Ahmad says that his thoughts were all directed towards the safety of his family. With extreme difficulty he rushed towards the primary school in Seirian, almost 5km from his school, where his father, Muhammad Hassan is a teacher. Over a 100 children between the ages of 5-6 were crushed to death in this school.
"I was shocked to see my primary school completely reduced to rubble. Fearing for the worst and hoping for the best I searched for my father everywhere. I offered a prayer of thanks when I saw him lying on the other side of what was once a road. He was badly bruised and battered with his ribs fractured. He too was buried under the rubble and was dragged out by two of his colleagues."
Ahmad was sent home by his father where he saw his 22 years old brother, Zahir, dead from a head injury. His four years old nephew, Yasir, and 24 years old sister-in-law, Samina, also lost their lives in the earthquake. "We found Yasir after two days buried under the house," he said.
Muhammad Hassan was shifted to a relative's shattered home where he stayed for almost three days without any medical aid, writhing in pain and agony. Eventually Ahmad along with some of his surviving relatives carried his father on a makeshift shelter to Balakot. Totally spent and exhausted from lack of sleep and food, they walked for almost five hours to reach Balakot which under normal circumstances is covered in under an hour.
Recalling his ordeal Ahmad said, "The road which we knew like the back of our hand became unknown to us. There was no road. We were completely disoriented and did not know where we were going. We kept on moving in circles. In Balakot there was no proper hospital, just medical camps set up by foreign NGOs but they were unable to treat my father. We then took him to Manshera in an ambulance. He was admitted in District Headquarters Hospital where he stayed for almost 20 days."
With a forlorn look, Ahmad said that a lot of people could have been saved if they were provided with timely medical assistance. "For three days the injured were lying about on the roads in extreme cold and heavy rains which lashed the area in the evening of the earthquake. I don't want to talk about that terrible day. I just want to forget about it but it is very difficult to do so. My brother, nephew and all the other relatives and friends, it's not possible to forget them. No doubt death is inevitable, but to die like this...it is unforgettable.”
Ahmad along with his surviving family members eventually shifted to Manshera where they stayed in a tent house for almost 18 months when they were relocated to a relative's under construction house. Since the last five months he is working as an office boy in National Highway Authority, Manshera. Working five days a week from 8:00am to 4:00pm, he is paid Rs 3000, which is insufficient to support his 16 family members.
"Yes, we did get the government compensation. My father and two older brothers were eligible for the initial Rs 25,000 each. After 15 months they were paid Rs 75,000 in installments and the remaining amount of Rs 75,000 is still to be paid," Ahmad said adding that the amount is just like peanuts. "With the amount we could not even buy a piece of land! We were more concerned with having a shelter over our head, food in our stomachs and warm clothes to protect us from the bitter cold."
With derision, he further said, "The government says that it did a lot in rehabilitating the affected people, but in my opinion it is the foreign NGO’s which did a lot. They are still here and doing all they can to rehabilitate the people. I, along with my family members, am very grateful to these NGO’s. They provided us with tents and food and even gave us warm clothes when we were in dire need. They are doing tremendous work and I salute them for all that they have done and are doing."
On fulfilling his dream of becoming a teacher, Ahmed said, “I can’t bring myself to enter the premises of a school. I break out in cold sweat whenever I think of going back to school. Even today I can hear the shrieks and screams of the children. My wounds will never heal."