Pakistani Quake Survivors: Strength and Joy among the Rubble

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by Yunhong Zhang, Canadian Red Cross East Asia Program Manager

It was a bright and sunny morning in January, 2006. I arrived in Muzaffarabad by a helicopter operated by the International Red Cross Committee (ICRC). I was excited, although exhausted after three days of intensive traveling in Pakistan. Muzaffarabad, the capital of the State of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, was full of reminders of the October 2005 earthquake: tents settled along the river, rubble piled up along the roads, and houses either damaged or completely collapsed. It was three months after the quake, yet the picture in front of me told me just how devastating it was. 

Many organizations had built up tent camps and temporarily settled along the road. The region is typically hilly and mountainous, and many areas remained a challenge to be assessed for sending aid. From the helicopter, I saw that there were many small, scattered settlements located on high altitude terrains.  

Muzaffarabad is much colder than Islamabad. The area is closer to the Himalayas, and it can get as cold as -20C in the winter time. Relief work has posed particular challenges for Red Cross here as it is mandated to reach higher, more remote areas affected by the earthquake. The ICRC’s helicopters fly every day when the weather permits to transfer relief supplies, and to evacuate patients whose condition can be dealt with locally. 

On my second day here, I joined an ICRC team to assess the situation in Charakpura, an area comprised of 25 villages in the Jhelum valley, to determine next phase of relief coverage. We were divided into three teams, and I was teamed with a local ICRC field staff member, and a Red Crescent colleague from the Muzaffarabad branch. The road conditions were very poor, and some areas had to be travelled by foot. On the way to our designated villages, I saw that some of the small communities were completely sheltered in tents. 

I met a woman who welcomed me into her kitchen, then showed me the back of her house, which was totally gone. She said that her husband now had to travel down the mountain to buy food, since the nearby market was gone after the quake. I asked about her children, and she said they were in school during the day.

Arriving at a higher, flat portion of the mountain, I saw that the school had totally collapsed.  The kids were sitting outside studying, the sun shining on their faces. They smiled at me, greeting me with peaceful voices.