Arrival in Lahore

An American in Kashmir: The Arrival
Friday night, November 18

Just before midnight, Ahsan Rahshid and Dr. Shahid Latif are waiting for me at the Lahore airport. The soldiers with guns are not unique in the third world but it is noteworthy that in Pakistan, airport security scans international luggage not just as it is prepared for departure, but also as it leaves the airport (mostly, to find liquor which is officially illegal in Pakistan).

We drive north in Dr. Latif’s small Chinese-made car to Ahsan’s sister’s house. As I enter the small but beautiful home, there is a group of ten in the living room eating cake. Ahsan’s sister “Poppy” is having her birthday celebration. Of the seven young people, four are Perdue graduates, speaking to me in perfect English. This family is among the very small upper class of Pakistan. The middle class is miniscule. The poor are everywhere.

I am here to assist Dr. Latif in his soon-to-be relief camp in the District of Bagh which was particularly hard-hit by the quake. He’s been there already, just after the quake, assessing things. Although I am not a physician he tells me there will be plenty for me to do in supporting this facility which will be completely self-sufficient inside the devastated area. He’s searching for doctors to volunteer their time and he is having limited luck in recruiting local Pakistani doctors. Westerners will be welcome. Anyone who has anything to offer will be welcome

Into the early Saturday morning hours, as I begin to suffer the first jet-lag throes of the forty hour and eleven time-zone crossing flight, we talk of many things. Of course ,what is under close examination is the earthquake. So often American’s perceptions of reality in distant parts are shaped by the media’s sanitized general tones, and although I come here well aware of the seriousness of the disaster, my thoughts have not yet been reduced to the on-the-ground specifics that don’t appear in the morning paper. Now I am with people at least indirectly connected to what actually happened and am dumbfounded by their stories of the violence.

In America these are “strictly Hollywood” scenes and any one of them could be a clever sci-fi screenwriter’s first-scene attention grabber. From Poppy who has been volunteering at a nearby Lahore hospital:

Entrenched throughout Kashmir, which for many years has been disputed territory with neighboring India, scores of Pakistani army soldiers are killed: most believe many more died than what was in official government reports. These solders, ensconced in dug-in bunkers, are instantly thrust straight up against the earthen roofs. Most die instantly from broken necks before they crash down to be immediately entombed by the collapsing earthen roofs.

A husband, wife and six children are inside their modest concrete hut. As the quake begins, the man and one son barely escape outside. Behind them, the house collapses and the man’s wife and five other children are instantly killed, crushed inside the house’s collapsed walls and ceiling. The father and son stand bewildered outside the flattened house. With the earth still violently shaking, the ground rips open beneath the son and swallows him straight down. The cleave in the earth slams shut. The man stands alone.

A man descends from his mountain top home as the earth begins to shift. He looks across the valley at two small mountains that are shuddering left and right. There is an enclave of homes in between. The mountain’s movement accelerates, as they violently jar horizontally, wildly out of sequence with each other. There is a landslide on one of the mountains, crushing and engulfing the entire village.

After the quake, a woman goes back to the village of her relatives. Identified by the ID’s in their clothes, she finds their bodies decapitated from debris careening through the air from the exploded face of a nearby shattered mountain. One family member is found completely dismembered from the flying rock. Her body parts are placed in plastic bags and are buried in a mass grave with other victims, their own bodies wrapped in sheets.

Of course there will be more stories like these, many of them exaggerated and impossible to verify. In this column I will work hard to separate fiction from reality but I already get the point: The quake was horribly violent. In Costa Rica last year I woke up at 2am to a 6.4 Richter scale quake that sent my bed scuttling across the floor and, in the seeming eternity of its thirty second duration, I prayed that it would just stop. According to Richter measurements, the 7.4 Kashmir quake was exactly ten times as violent.

Jet-lagged and utterly fatigued, I am confounded by the dichotomy of these horrible stories that are juxtaposed upon the generous, warm welcome of my new Pakistani friends. I’ll sleep now. Tomorrow, the plan had been to head north to Islamabad but it seems that doctor Latif’s mobile clinic in Bagh has been delayed by what seems to be the most serious problem everywhere up north: tents have not arrived. His plan for entrance into Kashmir must wait. Dr Latif is also disappointed in his search for volunteer doctors from Pakistan itself. His original roster of 45 willing participants of a few weeks ago has dwindled to eight. And, how many of these will follow through?

A citizen of the state of Oregon on the west coast of the United States, it is my fourth trip to Pakistan. But, as I fall asleep thinking about the days to come and the reality of what seems fiction to most back home, I try to get a grip on the what and the why. It’s sudden, it seems, and I wonder what’s got into me; why I want to crawl into this belly-deep.
Bio: Sam Carpenter, Bend, Oregon, USA, is a writer/journalist/photographer and the majority owner and president of Centratel call center ( Having traveled to Pakistan three times previously, with his partners he will spend this winter in Islamabad conducting independent relief efforts. His non-profit relief organization is Kashmir Family Aid ( He is assisted in relief efforts by his partners Linda Rosenthal of Bend, Oregon, and Hassan Shamim of Lahore, Pakistan/London, England.