Entering the Quake Zone

An American in Kashmir: Muzaffarabad
Tuesday, November 22nd

Having departed from Islamabad over two hours ago, Hassan and I are forty kilometers from Muzaffarbad before we detect any degree of consistent quake damage. The road trip to Muzaffarabad is epic, earthquake notwithstanding. Mile after mile the asphalt clings to the steep slopes, careening up and down, back and forth. In the physical road itself, one wonders what is natural deterioration and what has been caused by the quake. We approach the last twenty kilometers and the road narrows. More often than before, dump truck loads of gravel are piled to the side in efforts to shore up the fill-bank against further fall-away on the down side slope. Debris continues to fall from the unstable road cuts above and the road is littered with it. Our driver has barreled through village after village, each with the usual hoard of men just milling about or sitting in cafes drinking tea. There are very few women out on the streets, also as usual. In these villages, the normal activity is obvious but, in the air, there is a sense of something weighty; something dramatic and mysterious. In these parts, nearly everyone has lost family. One hundred kilometers distant from the epicenter, it’s extended family. For the people in Muzaffarabad, the losses get personal.

Thankful our driver has spared our lives, we enter Muzaffarabad at mid-day. We have been preparing ourselves for the inevitable. We know it’s bad and wonder silently at how will the reality will affect us.

The driver is eager to deposit us at the first outskirts of town to collect his 2,400 Rupees and to return to Islamabad for the rest of his 14 hour workday. He’s been here seven times since the October 8th quake and he takes it all in stride. We insist he take us into the heart of the city and we poke carefully through the aggressive traffic of buses, jeeps, relief organization SUV’s, motorcycles, donkey carts and pedestrians (people on foot are everywhere in the dust filled melee). We pass the crushed buildings that we’ve seen in the news and we look upward to the north and east to the mountains’ denuded slopes where massive landslides stripped away the forest. Coming into the heart of Muzaffarabad from the south and across the bridge over the river ___________one can’t miss the ________hotel: Part of it stands and part of it is crushed to the ground in a heap of debris, with the balconies relatively in tact, stacked carelessly one on the other on the ground. Like most the piles of rubble in this city, people lay buried beneath and my singular yet clearly twisted question is what their contorted bodies or last facial expressions might be as they lie there waiting for eventual extraction from the mess.

Of course, the city traffic is chaotic, no different than in normal times. However in the people on foot there is a wild-eyed look in the eye and a quick-footed gate that clearly states that things are not OK. On the litter-strewn sidewalk, women with their infants sit in that Pakistani crouch, with nothing to do but adjust their veils and keep watch for whatever else might unexpectedly challenge the only thing they have left which is their children’s simple aliveness. And the men: Where, exactly, are they going in such a rush? In the anxious streets, some activities are similar to city streets anywhere with people walking along talking on their cellular phones. This is new for Muzaffarabad. Prior to the quake, there were no immediate plans for cellular service here. Within thee days of the quake, per General Musharraf’s personal orders, cellular service was up and running and available to the public.

We come here with a loose arrangement to visit a tent camp and I make a phone call from the cab as we pull to the side of the street. Within minutes, a government official, the “Assistant Director for the Federal Ministry of Social Welfare and Special Education,” appears in his SUV. I tip our taxi driver 600 rupees and he’s delighted, shaking my hand and declaring a hearty “goodbye Mr. Sam!”

Anxious for publicity and knowing that we have come to this city with the intent of making donations, the official whisks us to his tent camp: the Jalal Abad Garden Camp Village. It’s sprawled across a park, next to the heap of rubble that was a library (after the quake, as the cold rain began and total darkness descended with the night, the books were unearthed and burned for warmth). The quake occurred at 8:50am Saturday, October 8th. The good news is that on Kashmir Saturday’s, libraries are closed. The bad news is that, in Kashmir, schools are open.

The Kashmir people are noted for their undaunted toughness and independent spirit so it is no surprise that after the quake, ad-hoc schools were almost immediately established. There are a total of five schools within Jalal Abad Garden Camp Village. With the schools in session, no child has a chair and there are no books or paper and pencils. The sic year olds sit in perfect rows on the ground, paying rapt attention to the teacher. This particular class contains just a few of the remaining population of Kashmir children. According to official government figures, in Muzaffarabad alone, 929 schools were totally destroyed, virtually all of them collapsing on the students within. Almost without exception, each child that survived sustained the loss of a close family member. Without any exception whatsoever, each surviving child endured the horror of the quake itself and, in their tiny eyes, their trauma is evidenced by a sad, vacant stare. But, they can be distracted. They are quick to seize on the opportunity for laughter. In my first day here I am reminded of the indomitably hopeful human spirit, rooted deep into our being. Whether an evolutionary development or a God-given blessing, this laughter, this ability to bounce back, is the singular advantage we humans possess. It is a tough-as-steel resilience that allows us to somehow find a way to overcome unspeakable trauma.

Statistics of the Jalal Abad camp, proudly rattled off by the attentive government official: 3,800 individuals (2,000 female, 1800 male); 450 families of which 33 have single parents; 11 orphans. There are 5 “at risk” females – adult women without a spouse. In a week’s time all these people will be moved elsewhere. The local government is consolidating all 25 Muzaffarabad camps into two massive operations, the better to handle logistics. The residents are not happy about moving – there have even been protests – but they’ll finally go because with the opening of the new camps, government disbursements of food, clothing and medicine will cease at Jalal Abad.

This morning at 12:30am there was an aftershock which jolted virtually everyone awake. Later, authorities stated that it was 5.4 on the Richter scale, and the math is simple: The October 8th quake was exactly 100 times more powerful than this one.

Bio: Sam Carpenter, Bend, Oregon, USA, is a writer/journalist/photographer and the majority owner and president of Centratel call center (www.centratel.com). 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 ( www.kashmirfamily.org). He is assisted in relief efforts by his partners Linda Rosenthal of Bend, Oregon, and Hassan Shamim of Lahore, Pakistan/London, England.