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Life in a tent camp for Pakistan’s earthquake survivors: Nisreen’s story

© UNICEF Pakistan/2005/Zaidi
A woman prepares food for her family at the Kashtra camp in Mansehra.

By Javier Marroquin

BALAKOT, Pakistan, 2 December 2005 – UNICEF Pakistan Communication Officer Javier Marroquin speaks to Nisreen Bibi*, a 20-year-old mother and  earthquake survivor who now lives with her family in the newly set up Jaba camp, Mansehra, North West Frontier Province. Nisreen’s village was completely destroyed by the October 8 earthquake. This is her account.

The earthquake’s immediate aftermath

“There was smoke everywhere, and heavy dust prevented me from seeing anything. I managed to grab my daughter from the floor and tried to run away from the house. I grabbed her from the back and I clutched her to my breast to protect her from the roof, which was cracking.

“The walls, floor, furniture were shaking; my mind went blank. But my father and mother came into the house and pulled us out. As the dust slowly settled, I realized I was alive and my daughter too. At that moment, nothing else mattered to me.”

© UNICEF Pakistan/2005/Zaidi
The newly set up Jaba tent camp was installed by the Pakistani military on a large open space in Mansehra, North West Frontier Province.

Minutes after the quake Nisreen suddenly realized her 6-year-old daughter and her husband had been in the village school.

“Panic and shock were everywhere, I was not able to think, and I just ran to the school. When we arrived we saw it had slipped down the hillside. I started shouting my daughter’s name, but she was not there…

“I went on looking for my daughter and husband and I saw a woman saving a girl – she was trying to shift a concrete block where she was half trapped under the rubble. Then I saw my husband carrying my daughter. The school roof had fallen on him. He was bleeding all over, but together we helped six children escape from that place. When we arrived home, he fell down, concussed.

“People were agonizing in front of us. When all the chaos got a bit under control, 25 surviving villagers found themselves together. But nobody cared about other people. There was no way we could help. We were surrounded by corpses, threatened by stones rolling from the mountains. Nobody dared to move.”

© UNICEF Pakistan/2005/Zaidi
No school has yet been set up in Jaba camp, so Nisreen and her friends send their children to a child-friendly area of the camp provided by UNICEF.

A typical day in the camp

“We wake up at 5:30 a.m. for prayer, and then we send our children and elders to bring breakfast from the communal kitchen. Rations are barely enough – but we all eat. So far we don’t have any warm clothes for our children. Still, I prefer to be here than in the first place we went to. That was a spontaneous camp, which did not have tents – and there were only plastic sheets to cover us at night. It rained and the children were hungry for two consecutive days.

“Winter is coming. There are still people up there [in the nearby mountains].  Last year we had three metres of snow, a long hard winter – and this one will be much worse.”

Nisreen dreams of going back to her home village of Sachan Nadi.  

“We had a piece of land and some animals, but it’s all vanished. Allah will help us. I am afraid of returning – somebody has to go there and ensure us that stones will not fall again from the mountainside.”

A school has yet been set up in Jaba camp, so Nisreen and her friends send their children to a child-friendly zone in the camp provided by UNICEF, where they can play, sing, learn, read and relax – leaving their mothers some time to wash clothes and clean the tent.

“I am tired of being worried, of thinking about the future. At this time of day [dusk], families gather and talk about what we had before – and how we’ve lost it all…”

At the end of the day Nisreen’s husband returns from work. He has been lucky to get a temporary job at the registration point. “He lost three fingers, so he only has two left to write with. We will talk and talk till the moon comes out, but these days, even the moon comes out late in Pakistan.”

UNICEF – together with the Government of Pakistan and several partners – is striving to give over 1000 internally displaced people in Jaba as much of a sense of normal life as possible. For Nisreen and her camp friends, however, the aid provided to date by the government and the international community is unfortunately still not enough. 

*NOTE:  It is socially unacceptable for women in Pakistan's traditional societies to be photographed, and Nisreen Bibi's family duly refused. The photographs in this story show some aspects of the conditions women are contending with in the tented camps set up for earthquake survivors in Mansehra, North West Frontier Province, one of the most severely affected areas.



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