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Aftershock: Rebuilding after the Asian earthquake

[Pakistan] Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, An elderly woman sits among the rubble, she received donated blankets and a jacket. She still has no place to go, her home completely destroyed. [Date picture taken: 10/15/2005] Edward Parsons/IRIN
Minutes after the earthquake struck, 73,000 people lay dead. At least 30,000 of the dead were children.More than 7,000 schools were destroyed and 900 teachers killed.
More than two million were made homeless.

Separated from his parents by the quake, thirteen-year-old Aurangzeb thinks they are dead.

But just as class is settling down for the first lesson of the day, a delegation from the Red Cross arrives carrying exciting news.

Against the odds, and six months after the event, Aurangzeb's mother, has been found alive and well.

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Q: “Did you think that you would see them again?”

A: “No, I thought I would never see them.”

Q: “What did you think had happened to them?”

A: “I thought that my mother was dead.”

Q: “How has life been here in the orphanage?”

A: “Okay.”

The Red Cross delegates have also brought a letter from Aurangzeb’s mother.

But instead of calling him home - she tells him to stay just where he is.

She knows the facilities and education available to him at the orphanage are much better than he could get at home - and as a mother, she wants what’s best for her son.

For his part, Aurangzeb is just happy to know that she’s still alive.

And it is the closure of stories like this that mark the end of the emergency phase of the relief effort.

A relief effort, which so far, has won almost universal praise.

“All independent observers will tell you that we handled it very well and it was a collective effort to evacuate people, provide medical aid and to provide food and shelter, and this process is now gradually coming to an end.

“We want people to gradually move out of the tents and the refugee camps into permanent homes. We have impressed upon people that living in a tent with your family for ever is not the best thing for them or their children.”

Pakistani administered Kashmir was the area worst hit by the earthquake, with basic infrastructures all but destroyed.

Across much of the territory reconstruction is already underway as people try to piece together the remnants of their shattered lives.

But for those people who have spent the last six months in tents, the task of reconstruction looks set to be a long and painful process.

Throughout the long winter months the basic needs of the displaced have all been met.

And the prospect of return to villages utterly destroyed is a daunting one especially now that they have grown accustomed to the free social services to which they will have little access once back in their villages.

Mohammed Iftikar is preparing to return home with his mother and siblings.

“Here, they give us everything we need. We have food to eat and everything is provided.”

“I don’t feel like going back, but I have no choice really”

No choice, because the government has made it clear that the $3,000 compensation package that they are offering the displaced is only available to those who return to their villages.

But for Mohammed’s younger sister Binesh, the prospect of going home brings special fears.

Today, on the morning of their proposed return, she wakes and tells her mother that she has lost her sight.

So her worried family calls a doctor

Binesh was in school when the earthquake struck and saw many of her friends killed by the collapsing rubble.

Does the doctor think it’s appropriate for her to return when the trauma of the disaster is still so fresh in her mind?

“Unfortunately we don’t have such facilities and such human resources here to look after such patients. So it’s better to go home. With her friends and family, in her natural environment she’s going to be alright.”

Binesh has not really lost her sight says the doctor – she’s just scared of going home – so her brother continues loading their possessions and food rations onto the truck that will carry them back to their village.

But Mohammed’s reluctance to once again face life without the safety net of the relief effort is a typical sentiment of many of the victims.

Mir Anjum Altaf is a development analyst who has spent the last two months touring displacement camps and villages throughout the affected areas.

While praising the level of assistance given to the displaced some aspects of the relief effort have left him worried.

Mir Anjum Altaf: “There is a certain amount of unhappiness with the modality of that assistance. People have felt that it has created a lot of dependency and a lot of uncertainty.

“We were in Battagram yesterday and this old man was very clear about this feeling. He said, ‘We are Pathans. We are very fiercely independent. We have a pride and this whole process has turned us and our children into beggars.”

General Nadeem: “That’s why I said we would like people to get back on their feet. And that is why we are moving away from free food to such livelihood programmes like food for work, cash for work – we will provide you with the seeds, the fertilizers and agricultural implements so that you start generating activities, you get back to your feet. Don’t look for free food. We’re looking for a behavioural shift here.”

So, I think it’s in fitness of time that the people move back and get back on their feet and start working. That’s the only way; you can’t do it any other way. You have to go back and get going.”

Binesh and her family are lucky that their village is reasonably close and serviced by a motorable road.

Kashmir’s roads are still scarred by landslides and many remain impassable.

But if these people don’t get home soon, there will be little chance of rebuilding their homes before the next winter sets in.

And now that the rainy season is around the corner, the threat of fresh landslides grows by the day, making the return process even more difficult.

After a long climb up the steep and narrow mountain road, the family has finally reached home.

Binesh and her mother leave the men to unpack as they make the short climb up to their village.

Not much remains, and the few buildings left standing are largely uninhabitable.

But as Binesh and her mother make a sorry tour of the ruins of their village, at last a welcome sight.

Seeing her aunt again brings the first smile in many months to Binesh’s face.

But the trauma of that day is never far from their minds.

“My daughter-in-law gave birth on the same day as the earthquake. I was here waiting for them to come home, to see the child drink milk for the first time.”

They never came. Leaving these two girls without a mother.

Meeting up with her Aunt again has given Binesh the courage to confront some of her demons and she resolves to take her mother to the site of her former school to show her what happened that day.

“That is where I was trapped. Under a desk over there.”

“There was a big bang and the walls started falling down. Then there was just darkness and screaming.”

Close to the school lies one of the victims - Binesh’s favourite teacher, who refused to be carried from the rubble until the last child had been rescued.
But by the time the rescuers got to her, it was too late.

My teacher told us to study hard, pass our exams and get good jobs – like a doctor or a teacher.”

So Binesh has made a silent promise to her dead teacher to do just that.

But the physical and psychological devastation of the earthquake will make a difficult promise even harder to keep.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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