One year on: Survivors of the quake

One year after Pakistan's worst natural disaster, which killed at least 73,000, many of the three million homeless still live in tents, rebuilding has barely begun, and compensation is bedevilled by corruption. Julia Stuart reports from Balakot
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The Independent Online

Musarat Nazir wipes away tears on the edge of her headscarf. When I first met her, six months after the Pakistan earthquake, she was sitting in a shelter in Balakot, a town which had been almost entirely wiped out and was rattled daily by aftershocks. All that had been found of her 13-year-old son since a barber shop collapsed on top of him was his shoes. The distraught 30-year-old mother then wished that the whole family had been wiped out.

A year after the disaster Musarat still feels the same. She now lives in a tent with her husband and three children in Jaba camp, a half-hour drive from Balakot in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), where she moved to escape flash floods. "My sister lost two daughters and a son in the earthquake. She has never found his body. My other sister lost two sons and hasn't found their bodies either. Can you help us find the bodies of our children?" she asks. "We are praying that they didn't die, and foreigners took them to hospitals abroad and will bring them back. I wish another earthquake would occur so we can all die at the same time. If this is life, I would rather be dead."

According to official figures, around 73,000 people died in the quake, Pakistan's worst natural disaster, which struck NWFP and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir on 8 October last year. At least a further 1,300 died on the Indian side of the dividing line in Kashmir. Aid agencies believe the victims could number around 100,000. Three million were left homeless and, 12 months on, most survivors still live in relief tents or shelters made from corrugated iron. Around 36,000 are in government camps, having lost their land. Schools and medical facilities still operate out of temporary shelters.

The weather has been one of the factors impeding reconstruction. A massive international relief operation was mounted to keep the survivors alive during the area's notoriously harsh winter. Readers of The Independent on Sunday donated more than £132,000 to the charity ActionAid, much of which was spent on tents and shelters, and the feared second wave of deaths was averted. But by the time the snows had melted, it was only months until the monsoon, which caused yet more landslides, killing at least 12 people, and flooding entire villages. Around 4,000 people were relocated. It will start snowing again in December.

Many have not received the first instalment of the compensation to rebuild their homes, despite claims by the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (Erra) to the contrary. Bushra Gohar, director of ActionAid's emergency and reconstruction project in Pakistan, blames Erra's frequently changing policies and the difficulty of communicating them to so many survivors. There are also problems with corruption.

"There is so much corruption that the families will hardly get any compensation," she says. "You have to pay someone to get an instalment. Most of the people are poor and they are the last priority for the government and the military." One woman she has spoken to had even taken out a loan in order to pay the bribes, she says. Many can't work, as they are waiting by the remains of their collapsed homes for an assessment team to arrive, or spend their days standing in endless queues to get the right documentation.

Lt-Gen Nadeem Ahmed, deputy chairman of Erra, admitted to the IoS that corruption had taken place during the initial assessment stages. He claims that about 17 per cent of the people have started to build proper homes. "We are pretty much happy with the state of affairs ... The people have suffered such a huge trauma they will always be complaining," he says.

In the district of Bagh, in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, where 8,658 people died and 11,369 were injured, 96 per cent of its people are living in temporary shelters. In the nearby village of Penyali, Rashida Abdurazaq, 55, and her husband Abdul, 60, who had five daughters and a son, live in a tent and corrugated iron shelter on the side of a mountain. "The earthquake destroyed the house within seconds," says Rashida. The family have yet to receive the first instalment of compensation to rebuild their home. "The survey team came five months ago. They said they would come back, but they haven't. We're now in debt by 40,000 rupees [£350] because we had to buy food. Everything has become very expensive since the earthquake. I'm worried about the winter again. In two months, we could get about 3ft of snow."

Six months since I last visited, there is little visible change to Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, where about 36,000 died. Relief tents stand on top of the skeletal remains of buildings. Dust and exposed iron rods are a permanent feature, and some buildings still lie where they fell. Buffaloes shelter behind tarpaulin. The only sign of significant progress is the corrugated-iron university, paid for by a charity.

Outside the city's half-finished cricket stadium is one of the area's 40 government camps. Muhammad Maskeen, 45, his wife, Reshamjan, 40, and their six children, aged from seven to 21, have lived in the same tent since 23 October. This has now ripped. Their eight-room home in a village in the Neelum valley, a seven-day walk away, was destroyed. No relief workers came to their rescue.

"I'm willing to go back, but there's no access as there was a landslide," says Muhammad. "I was a farmer and lost my livelihood. My two buffaloes and bull died. It's very difficult living here. There's no privacy and in the summer it's too hot. If it rains for more than an hour, there's mud everywhere. I feel very insecure." The family have already spent half of the compensation they received to rebuild their home on essentials such as food, mattresses, a stove, a water container and gas for cooking.

Others have been luckier. Saima Sain Khan, 20, from the nearby village of Dhaki Marvania, is one of a handful of women whom ActionAid has trained as an electrician. In a tiny shelter that also serves as a shop, she proudly opens her toolbox and shows me her wirecutters and pliers. She earns three times as much as she did as a seamstress.

"People said that women wouldn't be able to do it," says Saima, who sleeps on the floor, as there aren't enough beds for all the family. "But we've been accepted and we're providing a much-needed skill in the area."

Back in NWFP, some are still struggling to get the required documentation before they can start the long process of claiming compensation. It is 9.30am and there is already a long queue at the National Database Registration Authority in Mansehra, which isn't yet open. Many lost their ID cards in the disaster and they are still trying to replace them.

Zareen, 34, a farmer, has been trying since December and has made more than a dozen journeys from his shelter in the Chattar plain, two hours away, as well as two trips to Islamabad. It has cost him 20,000 rupees so far (£175). His name has been misspelt along the way, which is holding up his case. Zareen, who shares his shelter with his parents, wife, three children and two brothers, is sure he will get no further today. "They want me to make the journey from my home to this office until my death."

Biyari, a remote village set 5,400ft above sea level in the Allai valley, NWFP, has also not changed much since my last visit. All the residents are still living in temporary shelters or tents, and collapsed houses still lie among the marijuana plants.

Taja Farooq, 30, lost her husband, mother and sister-in-law, as well as nephews and nieces. Dressed in black, she hides in a shed, as her culture prohibits her from talking face-to-face with my male translator. "When I see another woman with her husband, even if they have nothing she has hope," says the widow, who shares a shelter with her father-in-law and three children. "But what do I have? It doesn't matter if another earthquake occurs. I have nothing more to lose."

Meanwhile, the National Institute for Handicapped in Islamabad is still caring for around 100 patients left paraplegic or quadriplegic after the disaster. Last time we spoke, Khalida Noorkhan, 21, from Bagh, was hoping to walk again. She has since taken her first steps with the help of crutches and is naturally delighted. Still thin and pale, she spends most of the day lying on her bed battling against bedsores. Salama Akthar, 20, also from Bagh, can now take hesitant steps unaided. But hers is not an entirely happy ending. As doctors feared would be the case for many female patients, her husband has left her. "I live only for her," says Salama, looking at her 13-month-old daughter.

Back at Jaba camp, Musarat is clutching an International Red Cross leaflet featuring photos of the missing, which includes her son. Balakot, where 2,096 people died, will not be rebuilt as it sits on two active fault lines. A new town is to be constructed 15 miles away. It will take up to three years to be built. I suspect her tears are far from over.