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Three months on from Pakistan's earthquake - children have some good things to tell

© UNICEF/PAKA01509D/Zaidi
Girls in a tent school setup by UNICEF at Kashtara camp NWFP.

The news from Pakistan’s earthquake-affected areas is awful: the weather is  biting cold, windy and wet. Conditions in the tented camps set up in the valleys are miserable, as thin canvas bends under the weight of snow and rain blowing in soaks bedding, while deep mud squelches underfoot everywhere.In the mountains at altitudes above 5,000 feet the heavy rain and snowfall have caused landslides and made villages inaccessible; they’ll remain so now for the rest of the winter as further snow closes the passes and blocks all roads in.

Yet despite the dire circumstances there’s still human resilience to report on. All the UNICEF staff interacting with children whose lives were irrevocably changed on October 8 have stories to tell. Communication Officer Shamsuddin Ahmed, on assignment from the Bangladesh Country Office, has been in Muzaffarabad for the past few weeks. Writing about the children he’s observed he says,Optimism is gradually replacing the pessimism that gripped the earthquake affectees in the first few weeks. At first all I heard was repeated stories of the disaster, but now young people have different things to say.”

As an example Shamsuddin describes the situation of Muhammad Sayeed and his six siblings, who are living at Bela Noor Shah camp, on the banks of the Neelam river. He was told by the family, “There was no school, no teacher, no books when we arrived at this place right after the quake so we just wandered around the camp.”

On November 1 a school was opened in a tent at the camp and things changed. “From that day we began to attend school and since then we’ve never missed a single day,” said Muhammad Ishwaq, a student in class five. “School is the best place for us. We attend classes. After school hours we play in front of the tent. Then we come home and in the evenings we have homework to do”, added class four student Tazeem Yunus.

In another camp Shamsuddin encountered Zeenat Bibi, 16, living there with her parents and two sisters. The family were in their village, Gajju, 45 kilometres away in the Neelam valley, when the quake hit. Leaving their destroyed home, they came to Muzaffarabad with Zeenat, unconscious after she had been pulled from the rubble, badly hurt by the heavy beam that had fallen on her back. Zeenat was admitted to a local hospital where she spent 21 days, and when she came out she joined the family in their tent.

Zeenat is able to walk, although only with the help of crutches. Her father, Altaf told Shamsuddin, “She has improved a lot in last couple of months. When we brought her here she could not sit up, but now, with the crutches she can move around the camp.” He realizes it’s not an easy place for her to be while she’s recovering but says, “We are grateful to be here where we are in reach of medical care.” Zeenat  described the regular visits she makes to see the doctors every fifteen days and confirmed that they say she will need to continue the physiotherapy they have prescribed, but that she will fully recover in course of time.

© UNICEF/PAKA01599D/Zaidi
Young boy with a freshly received UNICEF winter kit

Photographer Asad Zaidi has been covering the emergency since the first days after the disaster, capturing the initial relief interventions when supplies of high energy biscuits, tents and blankets were thrown out from helicopters to high altitude villages. Returning at this time to snowclad Macchira village at 7000 feet, the helicopter was able to land and Asad photographed the distribution of blankets and the winter clothing kits for children. “Eid is just approaching and I was so glad that we could hand every child a kit (we were carrying 4,500 in the heli.) It was almost as though it was the gift of a new outfit that normally they’d receive at this time of year,” he comments.

Videographer Kitty Logan was on the same mission to reach the most remote communities before the snowfall cuts them off completely. “When you look closely at children their faces are drawn and tired” she notes, “but somehow they still manage to have fun,” referring to the scenes she shot of boys tumbling in the flurries of heavy snow swept up by the helicopter downdraft. “Children are coming to collect their kits in plastic sandals and flip-flops but then it’s really heartening when we see them put on their warm padded boots and trudge off into the distance.” Yasir, age 10, who had trekked through the drifts for over a kilometer to reach the village told her “This is the first time we children got something specially for us; it makes me very happy.”

At Batagram in North West Frontier Province there are more than a thousand children living in Maidan tented camp. As a distribution of blankets was taking place, some of the 90,000 currently going out from the UNICEF warehouse in Mansehra, Communication Officer Javier Marroquin interviewed Asha, 10. He learned that the family has eleven members, all sharing one tent. The conditions are very hard but Asha managed to look on the bright side. “I never slept on the ground before” she told him. “At night it gets very cold in the tent - but we have just got some more blankets and so now we can put them on the floor and have more to cover us on top.”

Javier also speaks about positive feedback from the Child Protection centre he visited recently at the Hassa tented camp where he found thirty children busily using crayons to colour in animal pictures under the supervision of Hamida Bibi. “I like the teacher” reported Nazish, 7, pointing at Hamida “I like coming here because I have lots of friends now.” He also met Salma, who as a 5 years old girl   carrying a black and white football with her everywhere she goes,  is actively challenging both the Pakistani preoccupation with cricket as the national sport and the constraints on girls engaging publicly in team sports.

 

 

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