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.


Ruahines said...

Tena koe Bob,
0nce again I feel a combination of angst and inspiration. Angst in how little interest the rest of the world takes after these disasters are no longer news worthy, so thank you for so descriptively and photographically reminding me in a way I can share with others. Inspiration and respect for those who remain in such places long after that worldly interest has waned. Yoiu always leave me with much to think about and consider as these winds of change swirl about me.
0n a lighter note, I have finished, and enjoyed thoroughly, the Teichelmann book. He was quite a man. A book I will be proud to have on my shelf to pull down like an old friend from time to time. Have a great day Bob.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Kia Ora Robb

Thanks for your feedback. I am pleased you enjoyed the Teichelmann book. Yes, he was both an interesting and great man of diverse interests. Its a shame a number of typos crept into the book.

Spent a few days in Aceh province last week where the tsunami hit and the number of houses we have built is reaching 40,000 and our water sanitation programme reaching well over 400,000 people. It is almost four years after the Tsunami and the work goes on.

Enjoyed the last posting on your blog. Tred lightly.


Marja said...

The devastation is beyond comprehension. Some people have to go through so much in a day what others don't even experience in a life time.
Bless you that you can make a difference.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Kia Ora Marja. Appreciate your feedback. I am dreaming of returning to wintry New Zealand next week and to see snow on the Alps.

The tragedies we see dai;y are heart breaking such as the suicide bombing in Islamabad, Pakistan yesterday.

Take care.


dickiebo said...

Bob, May I be allowed to do an article on my blog based on your article here, please? Just a few of your photographs, with some words expressing our appreciation for those who do good. My article would, of course, cross-reference to yours, and full credit given to you as being the author.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Hi dickiebo

Yes, you can use my article and some photos. I want to see a better world and by sharing thoughts and ideas, hopefully we can improve things. Take care


Unknown said...

Always challenging to read your blog Bob.

What have been the long term effects for these people and their environment? What lessons were learned from the response to it? (you must have some good links for that:-)).

The passing response of the mass media must be devastating for people working in the type of situations you do. Irrawaddy delta is old news now, nowhere nearly as important as the people playing gaves with other peoples lives in Iran.

Take care Bob. I hope you continue to enjoy making your blog so us readers can learn from your experience.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Kia Ora Jamie

Thanks for your feedback. The media has its duty to highlight the early days of any disaster and some do it really well, others sensationally and often poorly. There are some superb journalists who come in and write about what is happening 3 yrs and 8 mths later when it has gone from the headlines. Yesterday we had a meeting of about 30 organisations that are in for the long haul on the tsunami (next 2 to 5 yrs) and it was so positive to hear what an incredible job is being done to keep the peace and rebuild lives in Aceh after 30 years of conflict that was halted by the Tsunami.

There is a lot of good news around long after the media leaves the disaster area and that is why some of us at the sharp end need to keep you informed of the joys and small victories.
Safe travels


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