WASHINGTON DC, Oct 15, 2005 | ISSN: 1684-2057 | www.satribune.com

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A girl in a Kashmir hospital after the quake. Below: Waiting for help

A First Hand Account of Devastated Balakot

By Anees Jillani

ISLAMABAD, October 15: If you ever want to see a Government failing, and in fact, want to see a collapsed state, then visit Balakot, which is two and a half hours drive from Abbotabad.

While going to Balakot, I was expecting immense activity there, with hundreds of relief camps and people removing rubble to recover the living and removing the bodies. I was dismayed by the relief efforts.

There is absolutely nothing by the name of Government in Balakot; it is total anarchy with everybody fending for themselves. There is no electricity; no water supply; no telecommunication connection with the outside world; no sewerage system as there is no structure existing; roads are cluttered with debris; bodies are decomposing in almost every home and shop; expensive items are lying in shops and no one is interested in them except that all food items have been taken away; vehicles including trucks are lying on sides; children's bodies are decaying in all schools; there is a pungent bodies' smell in the whole area and one starts smelling of it after a few hours; there is no medical facility in the whole area; not a single shop is open; God knows where the police is; all Government offices are destroyed; and locals are stunned, with hardly a single family remaining unaffected and all living and sleeping out in the open, with nothing to cook and no utensils, no bedding and no clothing.

You listen to the concerned authorities and it seems that relief could not have been better, and they are in total control of the situation. Probably they are because the soldiers for some bizarre reason can only be seen carrying their heavy guns even in a place like Margalla Towers in Islamabad. How can they work when they are carrying these guns? And what are they carrying them for?

I reached Balakot on October 10, just 48 hours after the earthquake. The road had just opened as it was closed after land-slides at two places; incidentally, it was a minor slide and it should not have taken two days to re-open the road. There was a lot of traffic and so I went from the Garhi Habibullah road to Balakot; it must have been a good road at one point of time but now the road has vanished from a couple of places, and vehicles have problems at certain points.

My first stop in Balakot was at Shaheen Memorial School where 400 children were said to be buried. Volunteers from Abbotabad. had rescued four children slightly earlier and now a French Rescue team, led by the French Embassy Defence Attache, was starting its operations. I remained with them till midnight. It goes without saying that their professionalism and attitude was phenomenal; they never panicked. When the first child was pulled out in front of me, I felt electrified. The Defence Attache had told me to tell the crowd not to raise any slogans as the child would be in trauma but even I could not help shouting `Ali' once he was pulled out from the hole that was once the ground floor but was now crushed by the upper two storeys. And this five-year old was funny. The first thing he asked for once out was Tang. Two rescues followed.

Suddenly, dozens of folk started offering their prayers on that very roof under which 400 children were buried, preceded by loud Azaan; it was Iftari time. The French asked me if they could continue with the drilling during azaan and namaz, I asked them to please continue. Every minute was precious for the kids trapped underneath us. And then the French discovered two kids and I noticed a strange thing lying over them. It turned out to be the body of their teacher Kinza; it took almost took two hours to widen the concrete hole and break the door lying over Kinza to recover the boy. I kept talking to the boy while he was stuck. Kinza's body had to be removed first and it was stinking so bad that even the French without any masks could not help clearing their throats: and the child Arif was lying under her was for more than two and half days. He was dazed but was talking and threw up when given juice; he was severely bruised.

The French told me that Kinza had saved the child's life by covering him and another child with her body. The other child had died by the time we recovered him. The French without eating anything and a short break brought their sniffing dogs to look for another spot to drill. I left as it was getting past midnight. The next day, I heard that they had discovered many more children and left at four in the morning confirming that there were no longer any more children who were alive. They had come straight from France and hardly talked with each other or commented on anything or ever complained; it was straight to work.

Obviously, the hundreds surrounding them could not help wondering that why folks from across the globe had to come to save their children when the army jawans were camped right across the river in hundreds. I did not see any police but saw one guy walking past the collapsed school top and asked him to help me carry a child's body; he just stared at me, without saying a word and kept walking.

I myself experienced the earthquake in Islamabad; I have not moved out of the room during such quakes in the past. I kept in the room even with this one until there was a big jolt after a few seconds of tremors and shouted to everybody at home to run out. It was probably that big jolt that destroyed everything in Balakot. The Shaheen School was a three-storey school built with the donation of a guy based in Qatar; beats me why schools of more than one storey were ever allowed to be constructed in a quake prone area. The children were recovered from the ground floor; and the top floors had crashed on them. You see a floor next to the road and it turns out that there are two floors under it, they have gone into the ground. Locals say that the earth moved up and down in strange ways in the whole town.

One local Hanif told me that he ran out of the shop after the initial tremors and then there was dust in the air. When the dust settled, there was total devastation and hardly a structure standing in the whole town. The sole Tehsil Hospital in town gone; not a single house in the town survived; 95 per cent of the shops gone; Qasim Shah's major five storey hotel gone into the Kunar river; a major thickly populated neighborhood was located on a hill-top and there were no survivors; the police station survived; PTDC Hotel partly survived; a major shopping plaza owned by a group of Tablighi Jamaat workers is the only imposing structure that has survived; Syed Ahmad Shaheed's grave has survived but structures around it have been demolished; Ismail Shaheed's mazaar has partly been destroyed; all schools have been destroyed and two telephone towers perhaps belonging to mobile companies have survived.

Many locals said that there were cries for help immediately after the quake from all quarters and up to 70 per cent could have been saved if the troops had arrived the same day. I said that how could they when roads were blocked. They said that they could have parachuted them or sent them by helicopters. The first chopper hovered over the town within six hours of the quake for inspection but did not land. The pity is not this alone. Tragedy is that nothing is being done by the Governmental quarters even at this late stage.

The only ray of hope is with the people of Pakistan. Their spirit to help their compatriots in distress is touching. There is constant flow of aid pouring into Balakot but it is all being sent by individuals or the corporate sector and nothing is being organized by the Government. And as it is all individual, it is disorganized. The whole town is flooded with second hand clothing and it is lying all over on the roads in dirt and soaked by rains. Many are bringing in so-called juice, mineral water and biscuits; and some bringing in other stuff.

However, crucial stuff right now are tents as people are living out in the open and it becomes cold at night. They need cooking stoves, oil, flour, vegetables, tea, and of course doctors with medicines. The injured need to be immunized against tetanus and few have undergone that. There are no antibiotics. We all need to pitch in and do whatever we can do to alleviate the suffering and help our brothers and sisters (who are not seen anywhere and thus unheard of) and children (who have no voice).

There is a Persian saying that "This will also pass". So this horrible period in the lives of these people will also pass. But it will never be the same. How can it be when you have lost your son, daughter, husband, wife, father, mother, brother, sister, friends, or neighbors? Your home is destroyed and business is lost. But it will pass. And people will remember how the State, the Government and all of us have treated them and the consequence can be extremely nasty for the State of Pakistan.

The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan who visited Balakot on October 10 with a French Rescue Team. Email: aneesjillani@yahoo.com

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