‘Zinda To Rehna Hai’—A first-person narrative of the 2005 earthquake relief operations

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ELEVEN years have passed today since that ill-fated day when, at 8:50am in the morning, one of the deadliest earthquakes in the country’s history claimed over 73,000 lives in different parts of Azad Kashmir.

Journalists and social workers reaching out to the quake-hit areas had provided initial details of the catastrophe, while TV scenes also helped in assessing the extent of the destruction. But, when I myself reached there, I realised that my estimates were not even close, and that the reality was far from what I had thought.

Along with cameraman Muhammad Kashif, I had travelled from Karachi to cover the story for Geo News. We began to see the signs of destruction before reaching Muzaffarabad, with wreckage of houses on both sides of the road leading to the AJK capital. We saw affectees looking for remains in the rubble, rescue workers helping the affected as per their own capacity. Amid all this, we saw a large number of people who were not part of any relief organisation, but had voluntarily brought eatables and other commodities in their vehicles. The way they had been distributing the goods among affectees made it appear as if the victims were their own blood.

This was just our first day there, when we kept roaming in the streets and continued to get stories for TV, which were also being broadcast all along. But, there was enough for us to observe there. Relief workers from around the globe were busy serving humanity—rising above the differences of caste, colour, and creed.

The workers were both religious and non-religious, native and non-native, citizens and foreigners. The Americans and the Russians, who fought against each other in the Cold War era, flew their choppers together to dispatch relief goods to remote areas and to bring the wounded to Muzaffarabad.

A major rescue and relief operation was ongoing at the Muzaffarabad airport. One helicopter was landing and the other would hover in the air waiting to land. A minister from Cuba, the country which did not have diplomatic ties with Pakistan at that time, reached the quake-affected with the largest team of doctors and paramedics. These medics would mount their luggage on their shoulders and would go into the mountains. They searched for survivors as well as treated the patients in the villages up and down the hills.

Several renowned Pakistani doctors were also witnessed in the affected areas—doctors with whom one usually has to wait for months to take an appointment. Yet, with their sleeves rolled up, they were there doing everything without any assistant or helper.

The disaster that the earthquake caused was horrific, but the passion of the people over there to serve humanity was above all and they were determined to defeat every difficulty in their way. And this very passion did so.

All this continued for months since the 7.6-magnitude caused massive devastation across Azad Kashmir.

The earthquake was so ruthless that it devoured 73,338 lives, wounded 128,500 people, with nearly 53,000 people critically wounded and around 2,500 were left disabled. Almost 18,000 students died at educational institutes, buildings of 2,800 schools and colleges were demolished, and around 0.6 million houses were destroyed. Nearly half a million families were forced to stay under the open sky for days, with estimated Rs126 billion worth of losses inflicted by the natural disaster.

A rehabilitation program with a cost Rs207 billion was initiated in the wake of this national tragedy.

We again visited the affected areas in Muzaffarabad, Balakot, and Alaai after a year. The purpose of this visit was to film a documentary for Geo News. Going there again, we found that government officials and organisations, which had mobilised to some extent in the months after the quake, could no longer be seen anywhere.

Local and foreign relief organisations, however, were still there even after a year and could be witnessed working.

The affectees braced themselves with a determination to survive despite all difficulties. Witnessing these circumstances, Geo News also decided to name its documentary “Zinda To Rehna Hai” [There is no choice but to carry on].

A year after, we got to know that government projects had fallen prey to some delays, but today – after 11 years – we have found that nearly 1,500 projects have yet to be initiated to the date. The reconstruction of 680 schools is pending today, and around 150,000 schoolchildren do not have access to school buildings.

But again, history keeps repeating itself as the affect’s help themselves this time too—because for them, there is no choice but to carry on.

 

 

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