Today we are marking the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake which struck Pakistan on that fateful day of October 8, 2005. The 7.6 magnitude earthquake destroyed the social and physical infrastructure and the communication system, pulverized mountains, and wiped entire villages off from the earth.
The earthquake, termed as Pakistan’s worst natural disaster for a century, wreaked greater havoc than the 8.1 magnitude earthquake that struck Quetta, Balochistan, Pakistan on November 27, 1945. In that earthquake of 1945 there were some 30,000 fatalities while on October 8, some 73,000 people including 35,000 children perished. Over 135,000 people, mostly women, children and elderly were injured and over a thousand were maimed for life.
The disaster affected many people in many ways. For some the disaster translates into loss of loved ones — family, relatives, friends, neighbors. For others it meant the destruction of their home, property and furnishing. And yet for another set of survivors, it translates into all of the above.
For many, especially the orphaned and widowed, the nightmare still continues. For the survivors, many displaced and rendered homeless, the unavoidable earthquake was an act of God. This is the only way they can take solace in their wretchedness for who can they blame for their colossal loss?
Many of the young students who survived the quake that killed their fellow colleagues still find it difficult to go to schools. Raja Sajid, a class 4 student has refused to attend school even though his family has now relocated to Karachi. Bibi Hajira, Sajid’s mother, a demure, diminutive woman in her early 20s, says, “Whenever we try to send him to school he starts to cry. In the morning he hides behind the door so he doesn’t have to go to school.”
Hajira said that though Sajid was lucky to survive the quake, many of his friends were killed when their school caved in on them.
The earthquake struck at a time when children were in school. Many schools collapsed, burying the children alive under the rubble. In some communities, a whole generation of children has been wiped out.
“That day Sajid was not well and did not go to school. When I think about that day and had my son gone to school …… maybe today I too like all the mothers who lost their beloved children, would be looking for the apple of my eye,” said the visibly distraught mother of little Sajid.
Bibi Hajira further said that even today the horror and images of death are etched in her mind. “Many a times in the middle of the night, when most people are dreaming happy dreams, I get up to reassure myself that Sajid is alive and with me. I still cannot forget the faces of all the innocent children who were killed in the quake. When I think about what if one those innocent children were my son, I…I…I am so very thankful to my ALLAH for sparing my Sajid,” she said.
The nightmare still haunts even those who went to Balakot and other devastated areas afterwards and spent only a few days in search of their loved ones.
A year after the disaster, Hanif Khan is also haunted by his memories and is finding it hard to cope with the trauma. Hanif had gone to the devastated Balakot after the quake in search of his relatives. The week he spent in his ancestral village has left deep scars.
Hanif’s wife says, “My husband is such a bold and brave man. He can face even the toughest of situations boldly without as much as a frown. But ever since he came back from Balakot after the quake, he has not been the same.” She further goes on to say, “Even today he breaks out in cold sweat whenever a truck or a water tanker passes by. He gets up with a fright from sleep and asks whether it was the tremors of the quake. Never before have I seen him to be so frightened.”
Hanif said, “One day when I was in Balakot and we were sleeping on the road away from the remaining few cracked walls of the houses. Even the ground had fissures and I was afraid of falling into the gaping hole in the ground. The fear of becoming another statistic kept me awake at nights.”
Trying desperately to hide his fear and pain, Hanif said, “There were so many after-shocks. Everyday there were jolts and all of us feared for our lives. One night as I was lying down, from a distant I could hear the rumbling as if a train is passing by. I knew from which direction it was coming. And then within seconds reverberating sound and the tremors lifted me up and threw me on the other side! Afterwards whenever I heard the rumbling I feared for my life.”
To conquer one’s fear is an uphill task and no one knows this better than Hanif Khan. “Since the last one year I have been fighting an internal battle to overcome this fear but so far I have not succeeded. The phobia of the rumbling sound is deeply etched in my mind and this is not a fear linked with my childhood. I am still not able to overcome this psychologically.”
Safdar Qureshi is another person who is also putting up a brave front that the earthquake experience is behind him. He too had gone to Balakot and Muzaffarabad, he insists that he harbors any fear associated the quake. Whenever he was asked about his experience he became lost in thoughts and was incoherent in his answers. “With time one gets over the distressing situation. Everyone has to die one day. We just forget about the past and accept the tragedy. It is fate. We all have to die eventually,” he said absent mindedly.
Another winter is about to start at any time and the 1.8 million survivors of the October 8 earthquake are facing the prospect of spending sleepless nights in shelters due to slow rehabilitation and reconstruction progress.
But Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz says nearly 90 percent of the people who had been in tents were now living in permanent or semi-permanent shelter. On the other hand, representatives of a foreign aid agency have accused officials of corruption, saying they were adding to the miseries of the survivors. At a press briefing on October 4, 2006 in Islamabad Oxfam Country Representative Farhana Farouqi Stocker said local officials verifying land ownership documents have been involved in corruption and were found charging exorbitant fees for issuing essential documents. She said the officials were demanding up to a 50 per cent share of the official shelter compensation before signing the agreement that a tenant needed to receive the cash.
The accusations of the aid agency were seconded by local residents of Balakot. Sabir and Shabbir from village Kalsan-Balakot said the local patwari (land verifying official) asks for money before releasing the land deeds.
On the question of compensation money they said, “The victims only received Rs 25,000 compensation money from the government and no one knows when the promised remaining amount will be given. In Rs 25, 000 it is not possible to even construct a decent house given the high cost of cement and steel and labor. The roads are not even built and it is very difficult to transport construction material over treacherous paths.”
The local residents, while criticizing the performance of the government, appreciated the citizens of the country and the foreign relief agencies for their promptness and efficiency.
Though optimistic about the future, the locals say that they can never forget the tragedy which befell them - “It is a never ending nightmare. Everyday when we pass by the ruined structures of the building, the graves, the fear and horror is rekindled. They say time is a great healer but our wounds are still raw and bleeding.”