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Pakistan Earthquake Four Years On: An eyewitness account

© UNICEF/PAK/Ramoneda 2009
The writer revisits for years on the areas worst affected by the October 2005 earthquake in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

By Katey Grusovin

Day One

In August, while on mission for UNICEF working on the displacement crisis in north-western Pakistan, I was asked to revisit Pakistan-Administered Kashmir (PAK) along with photographer Marta Ramoneda.

There I would see firsthand the changes that had taken place in the four years since a devastating earthquake struck on 8 October 2005, leaving some 80,000 people dead, thousands injured and millions homeless in one of the worst natural disasters to have touched the region.

I leapt at the chance, not only keen to escape the monsoonal torpor of the plains but driven by intense personal curiosity to see how things had moved on. I had been stationed there for UNICEF, as well as in Mansehra in the neighbouring North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) in the heady days immediately after the quake, when commuting to work by helicopter through spectacular corridors of giant terraced mountains became as natural as catching the bus and navigating vertiginous roads still reverberating with aftershocks, and landslides was just something you quietly ignored while getting on with the job.

I vividly remember the morning the earthquake shuddered across northern Pakistan and into Indian-Administered Kashmir. At the time I was heading up the South Asia Media Hub for UNICEF based in New Delhi. It was a Saturday morning and I was laying around on a charpoy on the terrace of my apartment, about to knock back the first hit of coffee and plough into the newspapers, when the world began to sway and jerk like an antiquated ride at a fun park. Birds screeched their way out of trees and the neighbourhood dogs howled in a fearsome chorus of primal yelping. That really had to have been an earthquake, I said to myself, at the time.

It took me five days to get to Pakistan amidst a blur of phone calls from colleagues and journalists and the blizzard of emails, situation reports and news stories that rolled in cataloguing the growing extent of the devastation which had visited mostly poor rural communities in some of the most remote and wildly beautiful parts of the country.

As each day passed, the numbers of dead and injured spiralled, and the tragedy of thousands of children who had been attending school that morning and now lay buried under concrete and rubble unfurled, earning the disaster its unofficial name: “the children’s catastrophe”. There were macabre stories of people and cows tossed into the air like pancakes as the earth heaved and convulsed in the town of Balakot, situated on a fault line; of survivors bearing horrific wounds and spinal injuries; and of entire villages with their inhabitants, simply vanishing into the dust.

I spent a month in the earthquake zone, and made several trips back to Pakistan in the months after. It was difficult to imagine how people could recover and thrive after a cataclysm as lethal and thorough as this one, so the chance to return to Muzaffarabad, the capital of PAK, a small town nestled amongst a theatre of towering mountains at the confluence of the mighty Neelum and Jhelum Rivers, was an enticing prospect.

Our first stop was a recently completed Basic Health Unit (BHU) on a hilltop in a dense commercial district of the city. We were accompanied by Zahid Khan, the UNICEF project officer who had helped oversee its reconstruction with local health authorities.

As we zigzagged up a sharp winding road, Zahid explained, “The entire building collapsed when the quake hit. The challenge for us was to build back something better in its place but it was an obstacle course. Because the streets here are so steep and narrow, it took five months just to remove all the rubble so we could lay the foundations because the trucks could only move at night. And all the construction materials, concrete, steel… everything had to be brought in from Rawalpindi, about four hours away.”

We pulled into a gleaming white building where we were warmly greeted by Dr Hassina, a thoughtful efficient woman in charge of the facility. “Before the quake the BHU was just one small room in an old building where all health activities were conducted. But now, in this new building, we have a vaccination room, an emergency room, a labour ward with antenatal and postnatal services, a separate ward for men, a residence for staff and a room for trainings. There was a great team spirit while it was being built… though we inhaled a lot of dust and pollution!” she laughed as she took us through waiting rooms jam packed with mothers and their children. Everything was spotless, bright and airy.

“We lost so much in the earthquake,” Dr Hassina said. “Thirty-five people from the health department as well as patients were killed here on that day but we have gained so much too. In the past maybe 30 or 40 people a day would come here for services. Now that has doubled. It is a magnet for the community. And there is a change in the behaviour of staff too. When things improve and the working environment improves – everything changes.”

As we left, I asked Dr Hassina if she felt the city had been granted a second life after its devastation. A large smile spread across her face and she nodded aggressively: an unmistakable "yes".

© UNICEF/Pak/Ramoneda 2009
Women and children wait to be attended by the doctor at the UNICEF-supported Basic Health Unit in Muzaffarabad.

Our next stop was a brief visit to the District Health Officer, Dr Sardar Mehmud Khan, an impressive giant of a man with a sense of gravitas and purpose about him. He had been due to take up an advanced professional course overseas in 2005, but opted instead to serve the community by working on reconstruction. “Since then I have worked with 35 NGOs and development agencies and the face of public health has changed dramatically for the better. There has been a change of attitude amongst health staff, a change in the structuring of basic health services and human resources and better equipment is now available. Everything has entirely changed.”

For pregnant women, he said, this means that services are now available around the clock – critical if women faced birth complications. In PAK as a whole, 69 per cent of women now have antenatal checkups and the infant mortality rate, while still high at 62 deaths per 1,000 live births, is much lower than the Pakistan average of 78. Under-five mortality remains comparable to national rates at 96 deaths per 1,000 live births.

With all this good news, I asked him what problems he thought lay ahead. “Our biggest single challenge is sustainability and making sure trained health staff are in place to run the facilities and the services,” he said bluntly. And that, of course, means more money and resources to consolidate the massive gains that have been made after the earthquake to ensure that they continue well into the future.

The meeting concluded with lavish quantities of freshly baked yellow teacake, biscuits and soft drinks – a ritual repeated for the duration of our mission.

The Government of Pakistan estimated that in NWFP and PAK 17,000 children died, 23,000 children suffered disabilities and long-term injuries while more than 39,000 children lost one parent and 1,700 lost both parents. Thousands more were left homeless and vulnerable. That afternoon, we looked into the child protection programmes that had been instigated to assist vulnerable children. “Abuse, exploitation, neglect, early marriage and child labour are just some of the risks these children face, and not just children who were directly affected by the earthquake,” UNICEF’s Child Protection Officer, Mohammad Azhar Khan told us.

At the Department of Social Welfare, situated on a brand new campus of earthquake-proof government buildings there were dozens of tradesmen buzzing around the corridors, busily adding the final touches to the building which was to be inaugurated the next morning. We found our way to the offices of Sarfraz Ahmed, the Chief of the Unit, and his two female colleagues: Nadia Abbasi, Child Protection Officer and the Assistant Child Protection Officer, Amber Junaid.

The concept of child protection had been known before the quake, but it had never been a priority, Sarfraz explained. The disaster had exposed the vast weaknesses in existing child protection services and spurred efforts to do something about it. “Since then we have begun providing social protection. Individual case management has been the most important feature of this initiative,” he said.

With UNICEF support, three child protection units have been established so far in each of the districts worst affected in PAK: Neelum, Bagh and Muzaffarabad, each staffed by two fully trained female child protection officers. Each unit had a ‘gate-keeping’ function, meaning they identified individual cases and referred them to appropriate service providers, whether government departments or local NGOs. They also worked with local communities through child protection committees and monitored child protection needs through community-based organizations. The department was proud of having successfully established Commissioners for Child Protection in six districts, with the intent to expand to all eight of PAK's districts. A handbook on Formal Child Protection had also been produced to provide information on services and assistance for vulnerable children.

With Amber and Nadia, we went to visit families who had benefited under the scheme. Our first stop was to meet Hamida, a 29 year-old who has lived at her brother’s house in Muzaffarabad ever since her husband divorced her because their daughter Sobia, now aged seven, was born severely disabled and refused to support them. They were first cousins. Hamida, a shy woman swathed in a dark shawl, ushered us into a spare dimly-lit room where a tiny misshapen girl in a purple pinafore lay on a day bed, her gamine face initially bearing an expression of mild terror at the arrival of so many strangely dressed visitors. She gradually relaxed, offering an occasional jaw-dropping smile.

“It was very difficult looking after a child like this after my husband left. I didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t walk or talk and she never smiled. I searched for months to get training to earn an income to support her,” Hamida whispered barely audibly. Through the Child Protection Unit Hamida received training in tailoring and start-up funds and materials. She is now supporting her entire family. The unit also referred Sobia to a doctor who taught her to walk and provided speech therapy.

“I am feeling too much happy and now I have no tension,” Hamida said. “Before, my daughter was in a depression. Now she is smiling and can walk and has begun to talk. She is normal mentally and has begun to go to school where she has one special friend who she sits next to in class.”

At that Hamida swept Sobia into her arms and carefully placed her on the ground. After a moment’s hesitation she darted across to the other side of the room, her curved stunted legs carrying her with precision.

We visited two more families, including three siblings from a very poor family, all born with the same debilitating muscular disease. The oldest daughter was 25 years old, and lay, shaking with spasms, in a cot with a fan blasting towards her for relief from the summer heat. Though she was unable to walk or talk, she still managed to crank out a smile when we descended upon their modest home, newly rebuilt after it was destroyed by the earthquake.

Another sister, only 15 years old, sat on the edge of the bed, quivering. She had recently left school because she was no longer capable of studying. Their brother Nadeem Ahmed was 17 years and wheelchair bound. A brilliant student, he had received the resources to start a small shop in his home which now supported the whole family. He was soon going to start a law degree with financial assistance from the unit, “because injustices are very common in our area,” he said quietly. As we left, their father a labourer, began to cry. His family had been in such a bad way before the child protection authorities had come along, he said. “But Alhamdulillah, thanks God, our lives have since changed for the better.”

We finished the day with a late lunch at a restaurant overlooking the swirling currents of the Neelum River, churning with mud and silt from the monsoon. When I had come here four years ago, massive tent camps had lined the banks. Now there was not a trace of their existence. There were still buildings bearing giant cracks and scaffolding scattered around the city – but for the most part, it felt like a town that had moved on.

Day Two

The next morning we departed for the tiny village of Battal, two hours from Muzaffarabad down the Neelum Valley highway, for the inauguration of the newly completed government girl’s primary school. It was not until we arrived that I learned I was to be the chief guest.

In the meantime, as we crawled our way around the dusty unsealed road barely etched into the sides of these immense mountains, we were surrounded by awe-inspiring scenery. The Neelum Valley is famed for the sapphire-coloured river coursing through its impossibly deep gorge, the lush green grassy meadows and its dizzying scale (though at this time of year the water is a rich chocolate brown colour due to the run off from the annual monsoons). It was amongst the worst affected areas, and was cut off from the rest of the world for days. The only access was by helicopter until the road was cleared and patched.

We eventually arrived at a small village reached by descending down a damp slippery goat track into a valley. Nestled between a small cluster of houses and wheat fields stood the picture-book school building, white with pale orange wooden trimmings and a red tin roof. As guests of honour, we were greeted by students who showered us in rose petals before being whisked around the grounds to inspect the new buildings and facilities. Already the turbaned wizened elders of the village had gathered in anticipation of the ceremony. A banner was draped across the new boundary wall proclaiming “Educated Children Lead Healthier Families and Wealthier Nations.”

The school’s three classrooms were jam-packed with students seated dutifully at their colourful desks in their freshly laundered white and blue uniforms. “We have noticed a huge improvement in our community,” said 15 year-old Nafeesa. “Before the earthquake we were all living in semi-permanent houses which were completely destroyed. Now we have new housing. Our old school building had no basic facilities. We had to sit on the floor and walk far away to go to the bathroom or fetch water. And there was no electricity. Now we have everything we need.”

According to the school principal, Ms Ayesha, before the earthquake only 60 students from local villages were enrolled. “After the earthquake, attendance dipped to a mere 35 but now with the new building, enrolment has reached 130 and continues to rise,” she said. The involvement of the entire community in the planning and construction of the school had been pivotal to this, she added, but the challenge ahead was to ensure that their support continued.

Later, as we left, Ms Ayesha spoke to us again. “You’d have to say the earthquake has brought new prosperity and development. This school is already making a big difference.” But she saw negative effects too. “People seem to have become more dependent. More selfish. Always expecting more or trying to get more. But,” she reassured, “when faced with a communal effort to build a new mosque, or a school like this one – there is no such risk. The people come together. The important thing is for the community to make sure this school continues to not only be a source of pride but also their responsibility.”

UNICEF is building 286 earthquake-resistant schools just like this one throughout PAK and in NWFP. Already 100 have been completed. UNICEF and its partners have made special efforts to involve families in the building and maintenance of local schools, and efforts to ensure education is not affected have borne fruit. According to a 2007 survey, 68 per cent of children attend primary school, compared to 56 per cent enrolled in the country as a whole. Unlike much of Pakistan, almost as many girls as boys are in school, and the drop out rate in primary school is only 1 per cent.

Our final destination was to visit the village of Majoi, a small hamlet of 35 households located by the Jhelum River. Majoi had sustained tremendous damage from the earthquake. Many died and most houses had been completely destroyed. Four years later, the village was almost completely rebuilt and declared “open defecation free” last December in recognition of the community's efforts to improve hygiene standards. In areas affected by the earthquake, only 56 per cent use adequate sanitation.

Led by Bilal Ahmed of the Centre for Sustainable Development, who oversees overseeing health and hygiene awareness activities and his colleague Shamima, we stepped into the compound of Zanqa Bibi, a wiry energetic woman wearing a shocking pink shawl and into a room filled with women and young girls eager to talk. Zanqa, a member of the village environment committee began: “Before the earthquake there were no latrines here. When the earthquake came most people lost their homes and even though we knew it was bad, defecating outside became the practice. People became ill with diarrhoea and scabies and other skin infections. This lasted for three years. Then our children were coming home from school and telling us how to build and use a pit latrine. Now conditions are much improved here in our village.”

Several young girls were desperate to have their say. “In the beginning it was very hard to convince our parents. Our teacher played a vital role in helping us convince them to listen to us about general hygiene, using soap, when to wash our hands and building pit latrines,” said one young girl in a white shawl.

Another girl piped in: “When we told them to build latrines, they said only when we have built new homes – because we were all still living in tents after the earthquake. But we insisted and so we got the latrines first,” she beamed while the room erupted in laughter.

“Now we don’t need any more teaching. We do it ourselves and monitor the situation closely. Conditions are much improved. Everyone has a pit latrine and now some of us have flush latrines,” said Zanqa as she led us to her bathroom so show off her prized possession. “The biggest thing we have is awareness. Even if we might have known it before – now we are practicing it. Life has improved. But the only problem we have is that we still do not have piped water in our village, though we have the pipes.”

As the golden late afternoon sun began to disappear behind the mountains we made to leave and a group of village men and women followed us down the pathway to the roadside. While saying our farewells, one of the men looked me keenly in the eye and said “If you listen to us and answer our needs you will be in our prayers for life…” He meant the lack of running water. “That’s a deal,” I said.

Although we had only visited a small number of projects over a couple of days, all of them ‘success stories’ in one way or another, I was left with the overwhelming impression that while the earthquake had brought tragedy on an epic scale, it had also provided unprecedented opportunities for social change and human development that would have been impossible under normal circumstances.

As we drove back to Muzzafarabad in the fading light, the odd road worker could be seen pulverising rock for landfill with one hand while chatting on mobiles with the other - an unimaginable sight four years ago in a region suffering from chronic underinvestment and poor to non-existent communication infrastructure. Major roads are being upgraded, electricity networks are penetrating deep into remote rural areas, new schools are being built with many more in the pipeline – and health and protection services were being expanded throughout the disputed territory - dramatically changing the lives and living standards of people and communities.

But while so much has already been achieved, there is still so much more to accomplish, complete and sustain into the future when the NGOs, donors and international agencies have long since ‘left the building’. Let’s hope the news is all good in another four years time.





Katey Grusovin

Katey Grusovin has spent the last seven years with UNICEF as a media and communication specialist working in Pakistan, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Yemen, Nepal and Sri Lanka. For three year she ran the UNICEF South Asia Media Hub in New Delhi. Assignments in Uzbekistan, with the Office of the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict in New York, and Iraq followed. Her last assignment was working on Pakistan’s displacement crisis in the North West Frontier Province in 2009. She recently moved back to Sydney, Australia, to return to filmmaking.


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