Aftershock! A feature story on the devastating earthquake that hit Pakistan in 2005. 
Cover story from The Herald Magazine.

Pakistan Earthquake 2005: The aftermath.


Imagine hell is beautiful... 


Saturday 8th October 2005. 3.45am:

In Pakistan it is the third day of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Maskeen rises from his short slumber at home in ‘Shasminabad Dhaery’ village in the rolling foothills of the Ballakot Valley, just a few kilometers after Ballakot town. His wife is already up and preparing ‘Sehary’, the early morning meal that must be taken before dawn when the fasting begins.

Maskeen is relatively well to-do. He lives in a large three-level house built from stone that slopes up into the foothills. His sons and their families live in the top two levels and the cattle pen is just below, close to the road.


4.15am:

The family gathers together to eat. Most of the youngest children are still sleeping, as they do not need to fast. There is little chit-chat at this time because everyone is still drowsy and thinking of taking more rest. But it is harvest time and Maskeen is thinking about the day’s work ahead. His Brother is visiting from their home village of Pamarat 20 kilometers up into the Kaghan valley in the north, where he was born and where most of his extended family still lives. He arranges with the men to go into the fields and continue the corn harvest once they are rested. 


4.48am:

After pray everyone takes to their beds again for two more hours sleep. Between Maskeen’s family, his visiting brother, and his brother’s sons who are there to help with the harvest, there are thirty-one people living in his home. 


7.00am:

It is time to get up. The women of the house are doing the chores, and breakfast is being prepared for the children before school. Corn bread and tea are the staple fare. 


8.00am:

Maskeen and two of the young men head for the field across the road from the cattle pen. The view is startling. The deep red soil fills the fertile fields that are at the base of lush green steep sloping mountains rolling on and on across to Kashmir and up to the Himalaya. The sun is warm even at 8.30am on this autumn morning, and due to fasting everyone takes it easy so as not to expend too much energy. 


8.52am: Hell breaks loose. The ground rises suddenly beneath the feet of Maskeen and throws him to the ground. He feels the earth shake violently back and forth and from side to side. It takes all his energy to stand up. He looks across the field to see that his home is gone. The earth is still shaking. Then it stops. There is no sound, and his life has changed forever in thirty seconds. 

Nineteen members of his family are dead. He was later to hear that he lost another thirty members of his extended family back in his home village of Pamarat.  He told me the story as he sat crouched next to sixteen freshly dug graves beside his flimsy camp. Why only sixteen? There was no room for nineteen graves and he had to bury the small children two to a grave. 


Destruction

This story was repeated across every home on every hill and through every valley between Ballakot and Kashmir. The destruction is unimaginable and absolutely complete. The mountains shook until every structure was flattened. Ballakot is a major town in the region. A nuclear bomb could not have done any more damage. Ballakot no longer exists. But a nuclear explosion would not have reached down into all the valleys to cause so much damage.

Imagine an area from Glasgow to Carlisle and from the Ayrshire coast over to Berwick. Then imagine that every home, school, office – every structure in that whole area is brought to the ground in less than thirty seconds. Then you have some idea of what has happened in Pakistan. 


The Aftermath

Two weeks later there is a strange mood of acceptance and resignation about the events of the earthquake. Everyone seems to be getting on with life and struggling to get help. They want to set up camp on the rubble of their homes rather than move out. I couldn’t see at first how anyone would want to stay and live in this devastation until I realized that the land is their only asset. Mostly the crops survived so the harvest has to be completed. There are also many bodies still buried under the destroyed homes. Life goes on. 

Ask anyone if they lost someone and they will say in a strangely offhand way “Yes, my mother is dead” or, “I lost a brother and a sister”. Almost all say that it was a punishment from God. A common story in Ballakot is about the main hotel, a five-storey structure by the river that collapsed flat on itself. The roof is now below the road level. Local people will tell you that all the town’s councillors were in the hotel at the time of the earthquake celebrating their recent election victories with a morning tea party. In Ramadan, to publicly break the fast is an outrage. All the councillors are now dead. Of course they may only have been holding a meeting but the story is rife. “God’s hand is at work”.

There were some touching scenes. I walked along the road in Nara Village to see Tahir hanging over a ‘charpai’ (cot) and laughing as his three young children washed his hair. Tahir has leg injuries and the children have taken it upon themselves to nurse him. Their mother died in their home just behind where they stood. 

Then there are the schools. It is reported that 17,000 school children lost their lives. The quake hit at the cruelest time of day.  One of the luckiest schools was the Government Primary School, in Bamphora Village. The headmaster Mohammed Maskeen lost 15 pupils out of 169. I found him in his tent in bed gripping the rope hanging from the support bar of his canvas home. He was rescued from the rubble but needed a major operation on his broken legs and hip. He told me that so few of his pupils died because two of the classes were sent outside to clean their chalkboards just before the earthquake struck. I asked him what the quake was like and his free arm leapt into the air in an attempt to show me, then he shook his hand violently back and forth. “I only had the chance to take two steps, and on the third step everything came crashing down. There was no chance”, he said. 


The Mountains

Despite the totality of the destruction in Ballakot nothing prepares you for what is to come out in the hills and mountains beyond. It is very deceptive to look at. Of course the hills are still there. It is still beautiful scenery. The sun is still shining. As you move further and further out, it starts to sink in. This is farming country and the steep mountains are filled with single homes, small hamlets, villages that don’t even have names. Everywhere you look is destroyed. Every time you turn into a new valley you think the destruction will stop, but it just keeps on going.  Then the landslides block your way.

All along the roads various agencies have set up camps for anyone who can make it to them. Tents and blankets are the order of the day because everyone knows that the winter is about to rear it’s bitter head. There are just not enough tents to go around, and anyway, what protection will a canvas tent be against the Himalayan winter. But the people don’t want to move. 

There are signs that things are about to change. As I reached the end of the road in the Khagan valley where a huge landslide stopped all traffic, the Pakistan Army had set up a food camp. Just as I got there a group of about twenty-five bedraggled mountain folk came over the mound of earth. The men carried the small children on their shoulders and the women walked in behind. They had been walking over the mountains for two days and were ravished with hunger. They set about gorging themselves in the middle of the road on the rice the army prepared. No one mentioned Ramadan and fasting. Everyone understood their need. They had held out for almost two weeks at home in the mountains without any help getting through to them. Eventually they had to give up. After eating, they too were asking about tents and blankets and were intent on heading back home despite their same stories of loss. 


And so the people came.....

I crossed the landslide to look down into the Khagan valley proper to see people walking across the trails like ants. Hundreds of them crossing up and down the hills looking for help. When they got a blanket or a tent or even some rice they put the load on their backs and headed back home.  Those who couldn’t cope waited with the army to be taken to a camp somewhere in Pakistan. 

But as time goes on and the winter comes calling, how many more will lose the will to stay at home, and what will happen to them?

The most touching scene of all was at the aid camp in Jumanikka. I found Zakia, a sixteen year old mentally handicapped girl sitting by the roadside. She was sitting near her elder brother Mohammed and we asked him for their story. He had carried her down the mountain because they did not know what to do with her. Before the earthquake she was a happy girl who played with her siblings and friends, and ran around the village in childish games. She was uninjured in the quake but was so traumatized she had lost the ability to walk. She looked scared and confused by all the activity around her. Just then a car horn blew and she let out a scream. I told Mohammed that he should hug her to comfort her. At first he thought it was a strange thing to do, but with a little encouragement he did it. Instantly Zakia smiled and laughed and Mohammed almost wept. It was the first time she had laughed since the quake and he held her all the more closely with a big grin of thanks on his face. 

I left feeling, momentarily, a little better.

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