Monday, 30 June 2008
Flashbacks challenge my judgement.
Caption: Shattered lives, shattered communities
With a career in the Red Cross spanning over 30 years working in both conflict and disaster affected countries, some incidents stick tragically to my brain and often flash before me when I am sleeping. I think, and re-examine, and ask "oould I have done more ?"
Generally the answer is no, and I fall back into a peaceful sleep. I have at least a hundred of these vivid, yet tragic episodes which keep coming back to visit me from time to time. One such day was Tuesday 18 October 2005, a few days after the huge earthquake hit Pakistan and India, killing almost 80,000 people. I had overall responsibility for a huge Red Cross relief operation for hundreds of thousands of homeless and injured people scattered through the high hills and mountains of northern Pakistan, close to the Indian border.
Caption: Another spray can of air-freshener is tossed into a growing pile amid broken bricks and bent steel. The rescue workers get a brief respite from the smell of death, but only for seconds. Three men battle with hammers and a blowtorch to break through collapsed walls, working like miners to tunnel down. Before 8 October the site was a solid two-story house…a family’s home. Now a hand protrudes from the debris and the exhausted, sweat-streaked men will take hours to recover the body.
I drove that day two and a half hours to Manshera where we have our forward base and met our team of dedicated relief specialists. Met the team there. Held one to one meetings with Renny and Jorgen who are running the field base.
Travelled up to Batrasi, only 2km away where the Pakistan Scout have their training centre. We are setting up a base camp here on a huge field that will take the camp, rubb halls (enormous tents for warehousing) for relief supplies and a helicopter pad.
Entered Balkot Valley. Saw landslide scars on the steep valley walls. Road blocked by landslide triggered by the 8 a.m. aftershock. We waited two hours before we could pass. Then we entered Balakot.
Road blocked by a landslide after another earthquake
The valley of death.
I'm in the middle of Balakot. The whole city is flattened. Three story building crushed like an elephant stepping on a beer can.
Caption: An open school-book lies nearby in the dust. ‘This is my house’, is written in English on the page, amongst the ruins of a school where 700 children died.
Cracks you could trap you foot in, splinter across the road. I am standing on a school building that 1200 children were in. 500 escaped. 700 decomposing bodies join thousands of others and the stench of death is pungent. People wear face masks. An old man with a hyena dyed beard tightly holds a red handkerchief over his nose and mouth to keep out the smell.
Children sit lifelessly under the sky. I spoke to one man who said he was the only survivor out of a family of five. Other men chimed in saying, “ many people here are the only survivor from their families. Children are orphaned. Many people are still digging in collapsed building know that if the are lucky enough, they will find the body. No one can be alive now. Virtually every building in the valley has been flattened. Occasionally you come across a one story building looking cracked, but then you realize it is the top floor of a 3 or 4 storied building, sitting at street level. It is erie. I look to the hills or better, mountainsides, and they are littered with houses that have toppled from their perches.
I visit Spanish Red Cross Emergency health unit who are doing a brilliant job, and the the Pakistan Red Crescent/Malaysian RC clinic.
The Spanish Red Cross medical team treat the injured.
Then I walk up the hill to where the Swedish Red Cross and the Austrians Red Cross are setting up a mass-water unit to bring 500,000 litres of clean water to the affected population.
A Swedish Red Cross water sanitation expert opens the mass water and purification unit.
We are getting large amounts of food and tents out to the affected people and our health clinic are working, and we are beginning to get clean water to the more populated and accessible villages.
Our priority is now to get building materials out to people before the winter sets in. By November the first snow will fall. Another day in my Red Cross life that will be etched in my brain forever.
Farzana, recovering in a Red Cross hospital. She lost her parents in the earthquake. Soft toys from the New Zealand Red Cross provide comfort as she contemplates her future.
Tayyab receiving assistance from Pakistan Red Crescent doctors.
A young boy receives medical assistance from a Red Cross nurse.
Mohammad Nisar sits on the roof of a smashed school. With tired eyes he watches the comings and goings in the street. Trucks pass by carrying troops to conduct clean-up and clearance work. Local people carry what remains of their possessions and others carrying their dead. The main road of Balakot reflects broken dreams and buried hopes.
“Still I can not believe what happened. I do not know if it makes any sense to stay in this destroyed place. My niece was buried alive in this school. It is hard to stand the pain when I think about her”, says the 46-year-old.
A man who lost his family and home, grieves in silence.
The injured recover in a Red Cross hospital
More shattered houses
Displaced women gather and wait for more assistance
Villagers comb the ruins for survivors
A boy carrying his possessions on his head.
Red Crescent doctors walking in to attend displaced people.
Ruined houses above
Villagers carry roofing iron on a donkey
Many thanks to my good friend Til Meyer for providing some of the above photos.