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When Will the Nightmare End

BY SAVAIRA KAWISH

ISLAMABAD – "Written in Urdu on the blackboard of a primary school is the question: Fajr ki namaz kis waqt pari jati hai (at what time is the fajr prayer offered?).

There are no students, no teachers. The desks and chairs have been pulverized. Bags full of books lie everywhere. They will now remain unclaimed because their owners are no more.

“As far as the eye could see there was nothing but crushed stone and mangled steel. The air was rife with the smell of death, but I could hear screams, the scraping of the chairs, and the petrified teachers trying to pacify their students. With shivers running down my back and tears coursing down my cheeks, all of a sudden I realized that I was not standing on the debris and rubble, but on the graves of children. I left the premises of what was once my primary school."

Trying desperately to control his shivers, Hanif Khan, who had just returned to Islamabad from the devastated historical city of Balakot, where he had gone in search of his relatives, says "even today the terrified screams of the innocent children, who were all crushed when the school roof caved in on them during the earthquake, echoes in my ears." Clamping his ears with his hands he asks in a painful voice "when will the echoes stop? When will the nightmare end?"

Answering his own questions, Hanif, now a resident of Karachi, says, "Perhaps never. How can you erase images of the women, their lips quivering as they pray silently for the safety of their children buried under the rubble? How can you forget the helplessness and yet a certain hope that is reflected in the eyes of the men as they claw at the debris trying to find their loved ones? How can you close your ears to the stuttering shouts of the injured rescuers as they frantically search for survivors? This is a living nightmare. It is going to haunt anyone who has witnessed death from such close proximity. The severity of the quake is beyond imagination. On the roads, under the debris and rubble, you see human corpses and animal carcasses. It’s truly horrific. It is a never-ending nightmare."

Balakot, the picturesque valley known as the "Door of Kagan Valley" is one of the worst affected areas. Almost 90 per cent of the valley has been destroyed; entire villages have been wiped off. Relief workers are yet to reach many villages, which are inaccessible. Roads have been rent asunder and trekking trails washed away in the landslide.

Despite all this, determined and resolute, Hanif Khan had set off on foot for his village Kalsan, 20km towards Kaghan from Balakot. Relating his experience, Hanif says, "whichever way you turn to, you encounter scenes of destruction and devastation. The injured, young and old alike are wandering like zombies, searching for their loved ones. You cannot close your heart and mind to their wretched state and misery. In a way, the earthquake is a challenge to humanity," he says.

In a state of stupefied shock and confusion, Hanif says he must have trekked almost 12km in three hours as he passed his cousins without recognizing them. It was only when they called out to him that he realized who they were. Equally bruised and battered, they were carrying a female relative, with spinal injuries, on a makeshift stretcher.

Hanif and his cousins were reunited. They cried with both joy and grief. Joy because of the survivors and grief for the death of close friends and relatives. Fatigue and worry lines were clearly etched on their faces for they had been walking for 28 hours from Kalsan. Now they faced the daunting task of going back to the village through treacherous rocks and inaccessible hilly paths to get their injured relatives medical aid.

Despite a helipad being in Sarian, a village opposite Kalsan, the army wasn’t carrying out any evacuations in the area. Neither was any relief being provided to the destitute villagers. The surviving locals themselves were carrying out almost 80 per cent of the relief work.

Hanif said, "When I approached the officer commanding the relief work in Balakot, he responded angrily ‘We are overworked and overstressed. How can we rescue and evacuate all the people? We don’t have enough helicopters at our disposal to carry out the evacuations’. But it seemed to me that they had enough helicopters and enough means to carry out all sorts of rescue work in all kinds of terrain, but they just refused to budge from their positions."

The intermittent heavy rains and hailstorms added to the inhabitants’ woes. There was no place to seek shelter as houses, schools and shops had been destroyed in the tremors. People were afraid to use the few remaining standing structures for fear that the continuing tremors would send the walls crumbling down on them. They were forced to spend the nights under the open sky despite cold weather and rain.

"Everyone was crying for a tent or a plastic sheet. Even after almost three days no relief work was undertaken in Balakot," said Hanif. "I felt so helpless and dejected that despite having the means and resources I could not arrange a single tent for my relatives. I cursed my lack of hindsight in not bringing with me a couple of tents from Karachi. My family and friends in Karachi and Islamabad tried their utmost to secure a tent for me but tents were selling like hot cakes in the country and there is still a shortage."

Inhumanity in the guise of humanity still persisted in the face of such a catastrophe. There are many people who try to cash in on the situation for their own profit. For them this was the chance to prove that they were better off than the others.

"My 80-year old grandmother, with failing eyesight and paralyzed since an attack a couple of years ago, who luckily survived, sits demurely beside the ruins of her destroyed house. Hardly a couple of yards away lives her brother, a local councilor. He had a stock of tents stashed away, which he was doling out to his favorites in order to win the elections again. And all this while his own sister is forced to spend the cold rainy nights under the open sky!" cried Hanif. "How can people be so brutally inhuman? I’m ashamed to be related to such a man.” The poor displaced families term the quake as unavoidable and an act of God. This is the only way they can take solace in their misery for who can they blame for their colossal loss? For many, the disaster continues as a very real presence. Everyone is asking the same question - When will the nightmare end?

The earth still continues to rock periodically, further terrifying the already terrified. Their fear is not without cause. The October 8, 2005 earthquake of 7.6 magnitude is termed as Pakistan’s worst natural disaster for a century wreaking greater havoc than the tsunami earlier this year.

Nursing a bandaged left wrist, Hanif continues his narration in a painful voice. "In the face of death, everyone, from a common civilian to a trained soldier, becomes irrational and selfish. One day a jolt was so severe that we all ran for safety. I encountered an army truck heading towards Ghari Habibullah and tried to latch on to the moving truck. But one of the soldiers repeatedly hit me with his boot all the time shouting at me "Where do you think you are going? Get out!" Despite my requests that they take me with them he kept on hitting me. However, I was determined and hung on. Even though I know his name and battalion I do not wish to disclose his name lest he loses his job."

On reaching Ghari Habibullah his wrist had swollen, the pain was unbearable, and he could not move his hand. A minor fracture was diagnosed by the paramedic at the medical camp set up by the Pakistan Army.

"I cannot forget the young paramedic Farooq, who administered first aid and shared my pain. I will be forever indebted to him."

Hanif Khan says he was bewildered by the disposition of the two soldiers. Both were deputed to save the lives of the victims "yet the first’s attitude hurt more than the pain in my wrist. On the one hand was the soldier who instead of helping me hit me brutally. On the other was Farooq, who himself affected, was engrossed in carrying out his duty and helping others. He was all professionalism and his attitude was phenomenal…I cannot forget him."

When the roads cleared, relief aid started to pour into Balakot. Relief workers arrived from all over the world and literally worked day and night, driven by adrenaline and commitment. The influx of relief goods was staggering. Ordinary Pakistanis responded generously. But with the good came the bad. Sporadic looting began while the morally corrupt started desecrating bodies to remove the women’s jewellery. Heinous crimes were also committed against the already traumatized women and boys.

Since the distribution of relief is not systematic, scenes of people fighting amongst themselves and with relief workers like uncouth savages were commonplace. Patience and forbearance were tossed to the wind. Perhaps hunger and desperation turns each one of us into a savage.

Continuing with his narration Hanif says, "I saw a child, hardly 7 years old scampering to get the relief goods. In the ensuing tussle the child was pushed aside and was running about here and there. All of sudden he was hit by a relief truck and succumbed to his injuries."

Pausing for a while he then said, "This is when I realized that the real victims were sitting dazed along cracked roadsides. Their minds completely numb, their vague eyes were not searching for relief but instead for their loved ones. Most had lost what little possessions they had. But all had lost their means to a livelihood. The earthquake is indeed a large challenge to humanity."

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