This 6 March 2001
The last 35 days have been the toughest of my life. More difficult than the North Pole expedition of 86, tougher than any mountain I've climbed. The first 5 days I had no sleep and since then for the last 30 days I've survived with a handful of hours every night. God knows how I've kept it up. Finally I am having this weekend off after having spent the last 14 days in Bhuj and Bachau. The dust, the dirt and stench of decomposing bodies permeates every pore of your body. People speak of a death toll of over 100,000 now which I can readily believe.
Running and coordinating a team of over 150 foreign delegates, supervising a 350 bed hospital plus two other field hospitals, getting vital relief goods out to over a million of the worst affected people, organising pycho-social counselling teams, orthoppaedic centres for those 2000 or more children who lost limbs has been a momentous challenge. We now have a team of highly trained professionals from 21 countries working together with the Indian Red Cross.
Phil Goff, our Minister of Foreign Affairs arrived last night and is travelling today with the NZ High Commissioner and a top level mission from NZ, from Delhi to Bhuj on our plane (which we have chartered for the first 3 months) to see our operation. As I desperately need some time to myself I have sent my deputy, Alan Bradbury, another NZ'er with them to show them round. I have dinner with them when they get back
Ablai my son and Naila are well. Naila's Mum is here at the moment which has been good as she has been able to support her while I've been away. But what was it like: .
In a narrow street behind a school in Bhuj town, a crowd of people wait anxiously for the arrival of an Indian Red Cross truck. It might not sound much but this truck will bring enough tents to provide shelter for a minimum of 2,300 people.
This distribution of tents is the second one of the day by the Indian Red Cross in Bhuj and the supply cannot meet the demand. Wherever one looks in the town, there is rubble. Bhuj has suffered terribly from the earthquake that hit western India two weeks ago. A town with a population of more than 150,000 people, it had one of the highest official death tolls with a minimum of 6,000 people killed while the number of injured was put at more than 60,000.
Among those waiting slightly apart is a woman holding a baby in a bundle. Hina Chanchal's husband is among the crowd of men surrounding Indian Red Cross officials to see if they are on the list of people who will be given tents.
Like all the others there, Hina lost her home in the earthquake. Although none of her family was killed, she saw the teenage daughter of a neighbour die after being trapped under the debris for several hours. She too had a narrow escape after having to run back inside the house to get her baby.
"It is almost as if God had put a protective corridor around me," she says. "Everyone in front of me and behind me had debris falling on them. I and my baby seemed to have a clear escape route."
Now she and her family of 8 that includes her mother and sister, live by the side of a street. The nights are cold in Gujarat at this time of the year and with each passing day spent living in the open, their desperation at their plight increases.
The mother and first baby born in the Red Cross Field Hospital, Red Cross Camp,Bhuj.
The sad tragedy is that there are so many people just like Hina. The crowd at the distribution point are vociferous and jostle each other but a small contingent of policemen keep them in check. The earthquake has left hundreds of thousands of people homeless. And all of them have their own desperate story.
One man, a welder who had his own business, no longer has a home or a business. After making sure his family won't have to sleep under the stars in a tent sent by the French Red Cross, he will leave them to search for work in a town 40 kilometres away.
The loss of everything that one has worked so hard for is difficult to take. But amidst the despair, there is a happy smile.
"The Red Cross is doing a fantastic job, keep up the good work," says Vijay Kantilal Mandalia as he leaves the area, carrying a tent in his arms.
He too has lost his building supplies business as well as his home.
"We were happy before, we had achieved something. Now we have nothing and are living on a road. Whatever possessions survived the earthquake, didn't survive the looters. The clothes I am wearing, I have borrowed, even the shoes," he says. "What shall we do? I just don't know."
Nevertheless he is relieved he has a tent. "I knew before the earthquake of the work of the Red Cross. I knew I could go to them for help," he says. "We don't need food, just shelter. Nobody else has given us shelter - until now."
The Indian Red Cross has so far distributed more than 67,300 blankets, 4,200 tents and 6,100 tarpaulins sent from donor Red Cross and Red Crescent societies. With the International Federation targeting 300,000 in its appeal for Gujarat's earthquake victims, the emergency relief operation is set to continue for a few months still.
What was it like in the first few days ? Patrick Fuller, who was our communications man in Delhi at the time, write this:
THE DAY THE EARTH SHOOK (2415 words)
Friday 26th January was meant to be a day of celebration across India. But as Republic Day parades were getting underway in towns and villages across the country at 8:40 am disaster struck. At the time I was making a cup of tea in my suburban Delhi home, looking forward to a leisurely day with my family. Suddenly there was a low rumbling which lasted for about 15 seconds. The kitchen cupboards shook and I could only assume that it must have been a 21 gun salute from the military parade. As I turned on the TV a news flash announced that an earthquake had struck the north eastern State of Gujarat with tremors being felt as far afield as the State of Uttar Pradesh, 1500 kms away. Initial casualties were reported to be low, 40-50 killed in Ahmedabad, the commercial capital of Gujurat. I instinctively called Bob McKerrow, the head of delegation and sent a quick e-mail to notify the disaster response unit at the Federation headquarters in Geneva. Information began to filter in from Indian Red Cross branches in the quake zone and by 10:30 it became apparent that the potential scale of this disaster could be awesome. A colleague from Reuters called to say the situation looked a lot worse and the death toll could reach into the thousands. Myself, Bob and Alan Bradbury, our regional disaster preparedness delegate, had already activated our operations cell at the delegation and within three hours of the disaster our colleagues in Geneva had issued an alert to the international donor community and a preliminary appeal was launched later that day for 2 million Swiss francs.
Arriving the next morning on the first flight in to Ahmedabad, Alan and myself couldn’t help wondering whether the disaster had been exaggerated. Buildings along the road from the airport to the Red Cross office appeared untouched and the everyday bustle in the streets seemed normal. The next few hours proved us wrong as we set about assessing the scale of destruction in different pockets of the city. Wherever a building had collapsed tension was high with local residents and police struggling to hold back the crowds of curious onlookers. A ten storey building appeared to have been sliced in two. One half had collapsed, the other half remained standing with bisected rooms open to the sky , exposing the final, private moments of former residents. In one flat an unmade bed, in another a kitchen table with the remains of uneaten breakfasts. Friends, relatives and neighbours scrabbled desperately in the rubble below in the hope of finding anyone alive. Two men rushed into the site carrying a car jack in the vain hope that it would lift a huge concrete slab under which the cries of a child had been heard.
Ahmedabad was bad but Alan and I knew that there was worse to come. The epicenter of the quake was over 400 kms away near the ancient city of Bhuj in the district of Kutch. No information had emerged from Bhuj, but we knew that power and telecommunications were down and the airport was closed. It was decided that I would head off by road to Bhuj while Alan set about establishing a logistics cell at the Indian Red Cross office in Ahmedabad. What followed was a road trip from hell. Our vehicle broke down twice and we finally limped into Bhuj eleven hours later with the driver almost asleep at the wheel. Before we even reached Bhuj, I sensed the worst. Passing the junctions with the towns of Bachau and Anjar hundreds of ghostly figures were encamped by the road. At the sight of our vehicle many leapt into the road, desperately trying to wave us down in the hope that we could provide some help. As we approached Bhuj the driver slammed on the brakes. An overturned bus lay on its side on the road ahead. In the dark the bus had careered into a gaping crack caused by the quake which zigzagged across the road.
At 02:00 on Sunday morning we arrived to what seemed like a ghost town. Empty streets shrouded in darkness, the only signs of life being groups of people crouched around small fires on each street corner. We found the local branch of the Indian Red Cross where the Branch secretary Dr. Morbia and his extended family were sleeping in the backs of cars or on mattresses in the middle of the street. Everyone in Bhuj was too frightened to return to their homes. I joined them in the dirt, but despite being exhausted, sleep didn’t come easily. Adrenalin was pumping through my system and it was bitterly cold. No sooner had I dropped off I was awoken by a violent judder at 06:30. The neighbourhood came alive with a cacophony of children's screams and excited chatter. The people of Bhuj were scared. They had lived through twenty seconds of horror the previous morning and were worried that their nightmare would be repeated.
As we headed to the District Collectors offices the next morning the scale of damage was evident, we passed a girls school which had been flattened, an office building lent precariously out into the middle of the road and an ancient Hindu temple, its pillars dismembered, lay collapsed like a classical ruin. The streets were choked with fleeing residents sat atop their salvaged possessions on trucks and tractor trailers. To add to the chaos anxious relatives were coming in to the town to search for their families. The scene at the district administration based at the collectors offices was pandemonium. I met the State Minister of Health, who was overall responsible for the Governments emergency response operation. The message I got was clear, do anything you want to help but do it fast. Everyone had been traumatised by this disaster. Most had lost friends or relatives and few had slept during the past 48 hours. I asked the Minister for a meeting later in the day, he pointed to his 4-wheeled drive and said ‘come and find me in my office’.
During those initial few days I felt a huge weight of responsibility. It was my role together with colleagues of the Indian Red Cross to feed back information to our teams in Delhi and Geneva. Based on this information they would be guaging their response to the disaster. The immediate needs were evident, the remaining population of Bhuj were camped outside the remains of their homes, in the backs of cars or in small tent cities dotted around the town. Hundreds of thousands of people would need tents or plastic sheeting to make into shelters. Blankets would be a priority as the nights were bitter and the medical needs of those who had been injured during the quake had to be addressed without delay. My only link with the outside world was a satellite-phone that I had carried from Delhi. Plugged into a car battery I made contact with Delhi and reported back on my initial findings. I discovered that an emergency task force had already been assembled by the Federation and was on its way to Bhuj. Then came the press calls. Somehow the international media had decided that I was the first international relief worker to have reached Bhuj and the phone began to ring red hot with interview requests. In between meetings and interviews I found time to visit some of the most stricken areas around Bhuj. The old part of the city had been decimated. A population of 60-70,000 people had simply vanished. Thousands were presumed dead and thousands had simply fled the city. An army bulldozer up ahead was clearing a passage through the narrow lanes which were choked with debris. The odor of decaying bodies had already begun to seep into the air and as I climbed over a pile of rubble my foot sank into something soft. Fearing the worst, I looked down and realised I was climbing over the back of a huge bull that had been crushed by falling masonry. Walking down an empty passageway I heard an alarm clock go off, it was 9 o’clock am. The clocks unfortunate owner had probably been asleep when the quake struck, oblivious to their own fate.
24 hours after my arrival in Bhuj the first of the team had arrived. Helvor Lauritzen, the team leader from the Norwegian Red Cross and a veteran of relief operations in Turkey and Goma, had flown in to take control. The next day the remainder of the team arrived, Colin, a logistics expert sent by the British Red Cross, Inigo a relief administrator from the Spanish Red Cross, Giuseppe from the Italian red Cross and Richard from the German Red Cross who would carry out the medical assessment and Gunther a water and sanitation expert from the Austrian Red Cross. I found it remarkable that within a couple of days of the disaster, this team had come from all corners of Europe to assemble in a remote Indian town to spearhead what would be a huge operation. Realising the scale of the disaster the Federation now issued a revised appeal for 25.5 million swiss francs, with the intention of reaching 300,000 people in the coming four months with non-food relief supplies.
Within 50 hours the first international relief supplies began to arrive from all directions. A convoy of trucks rolled in with 30 tons of blankets and plastic sheeting that the Swiss Red Cross had flown in to Ahmedabad and more trucks were en route with supplies from the Indian Red Cross warehouse in Delhi. On Tuesday the first cargo flights began to arrive directly into Bhuj airport. One of the first flights came from the British Red Cross which was funded by DFID (Department for International Development) loaded with blankets and plastic sheeting. An ERU (emergency response unit) from the Finnish Red Cross landed with a medical team and part of the 400 bed field hospital that would be set up in Bhuj. The logistical hurdles were immense. The lack of lifting gear at the airport meant that we were reliant upon volunteers from the Indian Red Cross to offload the aircraft, many of whom were in a state of shock. Trucks and cars were in short supply as most trucks had been comandeered by the authorities and truck drivers from Ahmedabad were reluctant to travel to Bhuj. During the next 48 hours we were struggling to cope with the influx of flights and took it in turns to maintain a 24 vigil at the airstrip. Every morning I awoke from my bundle of blankets on the cold ground to the sight of Colin Blakemore, our logistician, his boots poking out of the end of a large cardboard box into which he had crept exhausted at the end of each night.
By Thursday the field hospital was up and running with the first patients waiting outside. The camp that we had set up around the hospital site was really taking shape, resembling something from the TV series ‘MASH’. Tents to house the delegates had sprung up everywhere along side giant rub-halls used for storing the relief goods. In the space of a week over 90 delegates from Red Cross Societies around the world had arrived in Bhuj, each with a specific function. The British Red Cross had sent in an ERU of logisticians, the Germans a water and sanitation ERU that provided clean water supply to the hospital. The Norwegian and Finnish ERUs were establishing the field hospital and the Japanese Red Cross had sent in a team with a mobile medical camp. As fresh supplies arrived at the camp, convoys of trucks began to roll out of the compound each morning laden with blankets and tents for distribution in outlying villages.
It had been one of the most intense weeks of my life, an emotional roller coaster with a succession of highs and lows. Perhaps the biggest paradox of such disasters is the level of humour that abounds. Journalists and aid workers alike we were all shocked by what we had seen, but our experiences were shared through moments of laughter - perhaps an instinctive coping mechanism to counter our distress. I knew it was time to go when I got a call from my wife Jo following a live TV interview with Matt Frei of the BBC. “You looked like death warmed up and you sounded so desperate”, she said, and she was right. I looked in the mirror for the first time and hardly recognised myself under the stubble and dirt. Flying back to Delhi I reflected on some of the remarkable people I had met during the week. The volunteer doctors that I met at the soup kitchen where the towns population used to take lunch, rich and poor together. They had had no water for four days and had resorted to drinking the saline drips meant for their patients. The young soldier who walked into my tent to volunteer. It was apparent that he was in shock yet every day he mobilised a force of 50 other volunteers who worked relentlessly at the airport offloading the planes. The two young backpackers Siobhan and Zak who had traveled nonstop for hundreds of miles from Pondicherry in South India. Within an hour of arriving they were putting up tents and loading trucks. The army surgeon who single-handedly had carried out 45 amputations in the first twenty four hours, the list is endless.. . While thousands died, the stoicism of the survivors constantly amazed me and some of the survival stories were almost beyond belief. A man who had been sleeping on his charpoy (wood and rope bed) on a rooftop was catapulted together with his bed into a tree, escaping unscathed. The woman who was taking a bath when the earthquake struck. Together with her bath she plunged through three floors and stepped out with a few scratches. The true scale of this tragedy will never be known. Tens of thousands died on that fateful day and over a million lost their homes. The thousands of freshly shaved scalps that can be seen across Kutch today are testimony to the massive loss. In Hindu tradition, families who have lost loved ones undergo a ritual shaving to mark a ten day mourning period. Ironically there is now a shortage of barbers in Bhuj.
And if you are not exhausted by reading this far, read what my colleagues in Delhi Bhavesh Sodagar wrote as a young man just joiuning the Red Cross. He has a great blog;