Epicentre of despair: rebuilding lives after the Pakistan earthquake

The earthquake that ripped through Pakistan's North West Frontier and Kashmir was among the worst in history. A year on, 30,000 frightened people remain in tents. Ann McFerran reports
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The Independent Online

Widow Badshi is close to despair. Nearly one year after the Pakistan earthquake destroyed her home and killed several loved ones, she is living in squalor and deep fear. With 36 other families, Widow Badshi, her sons and their families are crammed, 16 to a tent, in a camp where sickness is rife and, until recently, lacked basic sanitation.

When the earthquake ripped through North West Frontier Province and Pakistani Kashmir, killing 86,000 people, it was one of the worst recorded earthquakes in history. Initially, it displaced three million people, of whom 300,000, like Widow Badshi, had nowhere to go. Today, official figures indicate that about a million people are vulnerable, and 35,000 people are still in official camps, with another 30,000 predicted to come down from the mountains for shelter during the winter.

The 60-year-old widow is sitting between her two sons in a stiflingly hot tent, precariously perched high above the city of Muzaffarabad. "After the earthquake, we were given food, tents and mattresses," she says. "But recently we have had little help from our government, and we are suffering more than ever because we have no place to stay which is safe."

A few weeks ago, Widow Badshi and her family were woken in the hours of darkness by what sounded like the mountain cracking in two. "We thought it was another earthquake," she says. In fact, it was a landslide caused by a lethal combination of the monsoon's flash floods and aftershocks. This time, the family ran for safety and lost little. But Widow Badshi says the children are frightened to go to sleep now, because they say night is when quakes come.

After the earthquake obliterated their homes, on 8 October 2005, Widow Badshi and her family sought refuge in a government camp in Muzaffarabad. Last April, the government decided to disband these emergency camps so the people "could get on with their lives". But many people, including Widow Badshi and her sons, had no homes to return to, and precious little left of their livelihoods.

Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir, was once a first stop for tourists, famous for its beauty. Today, it is chiefly renowned for terror and carnage which deters visitors; few hotels have reopened and unemployment is rife.

The government claims to have paid most families the first installment of 25,000 rupees (£220) of the promised 100,000 rupee relief money. But distribution is plagued with corruption. Restitution requires the male householders return to their homes to claim this money. But many potential claimants have gone to cities, like Islamabad, to work as day labourers and are now unwilling to leave their jobs for a relief package that has been historically slow to materialise. Others, like Widow Badshi's sons, refuse to return to their villages because of the real risks of further earth tremors. "We're poor and have lost everything," she says. "Why should we risk all we have left, our lives?"

Last summer, Widow Badshi and her sons came under pressure to move out of the government camp. They complied but the attempt to dissolve the camp resulted only in more misery. "They miscalculated the numbers," she says. "Out of 300 families they forgot 36." Today, these 36 families are paying 150 rupees a month to a private landlord, above Muzaffarabad.

When they moved in, Widow Badshi says: "This camp was filthy, smelly and unsafe for women, because it lacked proper latrines." Today, Concern Worldwide, with Islamic Relief and Unicef, have provided basic sanitation but inside the camp, in the oppressive heat, malaria is rife. There is no electricity, and women worry about snakes at night. Widow Badshi's son, Ghulam Hasan, says: "We're not beggars; we want to work. All we're asking is for compensation and a place to live. The international NGOs, like Concern Worldwide, have really helped us but our own government doesn't seem to care about us."

What the Pakistan government plans to do next to help these people is anybody's guess. "The government is being deliberately vague," says Concern Worldwide's country director, Dorothy Blane. "It doesn't want to attract many people to the camps, so it deliberately refuses to make them an attractive proposition."

Last week, the UN's Kathleen Cravero, said full recovery would take up to 10 years. As winter approaches, NGOs such as Concern which are involved in helping make the camps sanitary, are poised in an awkward waiting game with a government unwilling to reveal how engaged it is. One UN rumour has it that prefabs for the next stage of rehabilitation have been imported from Saudi Arabia, and are stuck in Karachi's docks.

Ms Blane believes the government is well prepared for the next stage of rehabilitation, but those who need to know most - such as Widow Badshi and her family - are being kept, agonisingly, in the dark. She says indignantly: "We've survived the earthquake but we cannot survive these terrible conditions. What will happen when winter sets in and the snow comes?"

As you drive through this staggeringly beautiful landscape, what strikes you is how tents now sit perched on every inch of flattish land. Beyond the tents, the lovely mountains frequently betray the murky outlines of other massive landslides, with all vegetation ripped away.

Sadat Hussain, 48, lost his wife and his seven children in the earthquake. He says he thought at first the tremors must be the outbreak of war with India. He stands stiffly to attention, as he relates how he was buried for four days before he was rescued. With magnificent understatement, he says: "I think it sent me a little crazy."

Today he is looked after by Widow Badshi's community of tent-dwellers. The Islamic code of looking after each other and particularly those worse off than yourself has probably helped the people survive as much as the much-praised aid workers.

Abid Hussain worked and still works for a micro-credit bank. He lost three of his four children. As he climbs up the steep pile of rubble that was the city of Balakot, he points at huge, broken slabs of concrete, the odd fridge and dismembered armchair, saying: "This is the way I used to walk home from work. I'd be constantly saying 'Hello' to family and friends."

At 8.50am, on the day of the quake, Abid wakened suddenly as his house collapsed around him, badly injuring his leg. His youngest son was killed outright; his wife, Samina, pulled her husband to safety, then rushed to the school. All around her was terror, she says. "Bodies of children; dismembered arms and legs. Everywhere people were crying."

That morning, Abid had returned to bed after a 3am breakfast and prayer in preparation for fasting for Ramadan. His greatest regret is that he never kissed his children goodbye before they left for school. "Because you never dream they won't come home."

More than 80 per cent of the earthquake's 80,000 victims were children who were in school. Samina found the body of her eldest son, Hasnan. Her younger son, Shazeb, was alive but he did not speak for weeks. Today he never leaves his mother side and refuses to go to school. It is the place, he says, where the roof falls on your head.

Samina spent eight hours that first day among the rubble of the school, and returned the next day and the next. But she has never found her daughter, and she and Abid still dream of the seven-year-old, Uajia, and cannot quite believe she may one day appear alive and well. When they produce a battered photograph of a smiling little girl you can only share in their vain hope.

Today the family are staying in a tent next to Abid's parents' home eight miles from Balakot. And today Abid and his brothers have hired a bulldozer at a cost of many hundreds of dollars to clear the rubble and to begin rebuilding. Dusk falls and thunder peals from the glowing mountains surrounding the city.

Abid Hussain points to the place where his leg was crushed by a fallen wall. Today, a lemon tree has struggled to life though the rubble. Abid says his family have lived and owned property in Balakot for 300 years and he points out his compensation was a fraction of house's cost of 1.5m rupees. But Abid is even angrier that the government has done so little for Balakot's people. And he points at the people living in absurdly flimsy makeshift shelters among the rubble, saying they need help far more than him.

"The government raised billions of dollars through the images of Balakot after the earthquake but what has it done for Balakot's citizens?" he demands.

Shabir, 22, and his wife, Robina, like their parents, worked the land until the earthquake destroyed their world. An agricultural labourer, Shabir had been tending maize in fields above Muzaffarabad when he felt the earth shake and heard the mountain roar. "We thought it was Doomsday, the end of the world," he says.

Certainly, it was the end of a life for Shabir. He lost his home, and several members of his large family and spent the freezing winter in a tented camp near Muzaffarabad. After seven months, the Pakistani government told Shabir it wanted to move him and his family to Ghanool, 13km from Balakot.

Shabir was greatly puzzled. He had been told that an international team led by Japanese scientists had condemned the area as a critically dangerous "red" zone. He says: "They said only 20 per cent of the earthquake's energy had been released. They fear there is more to come. We felt safe in the camp of Muzaffarabad. We really didn't want to come here."

But the government was adamant, and the family was moved to a temporary home. On 26 July 2006, as the memories of that terrible morning in October were beginning to fade, disaster struck again, and the earth shook for the second time. At 4.30am, as the family recited the Koran, a landslide thundered down the mountain, hit a lake created in the valley by the October earthquake, and released a massive deluge of water which wiped out the family's new home, along with many others.

Shabir says: "We could see the black water rolling towards us. Then we could hear the screams on the other side of the valley. Eight people were killed."

The landslide may have spared the lives of Shabir and his family but its force also washed away 17,000 rupees saved from his initial government compensation of 25,000 rupees.

Today, Shabir and his family share a small tent, where we meet, sitting on pitifully thin blankets, among neatly piled cooking utensils, some clothes and bags of dried foodstuffs. He fears for his family's future. "The first earthquake destroyed our families, our lands, everything. This second one has destroyed our spirit and our hope."

To donate to Concern Worldwide which is working in the earthquake-affected areas, phone 0800 410 510