Tahira and her family

The Dewan Group Tent Camp’s Tahira Yasmeen

There are one hundred and six tents in the Dewan Group tent camp. Perched on a bluff above the large, expensive and very much abandoned homes on the west bank of the Neelum river, each of the 120 square foot tents are home to ten to twelve residents who have descended into Muzaffarabad from the surrounding valleys and mountains. This camp is the smallest of four Muzaffarabad camps created and maintained by the Dewan Group, a Pakistani-based multinational corporation.

We drive into the camp and ask for whomever is managing it. A teenage boy disappears and then reappears with the coordinator, Sajid-Ur-Rehman. A pack of the ever-present teenage males materializes to silently watch, listen and shake this westerner’s hand.

Sajid’s pre-earthquake job was as a machine operator in a Dewan textile plant in Hattar in District Haripur. He says he has volunteered for this duty for “the humanity.” I hear this phrase often here. Volunteers, policemen, utility workers, government leaders and a wide swath of the rest of the population seem to agree that their efforts are not about religion or politics, but about people helping people: “the humanity.” In a newspaper article read by the outsider this could seem like posturing, but, if one even briefly mixes among these tent village families, the statement becomes fitting if not perfect. In this Azad Kashmir capital city of Muzaffarabad, even in the government buildings where politics is the way of things, people don’t speak of nationalism or religion or the usual subjects that one might expect in a city that has been in the crux of such a prolonged and intense dispute with it’s neighbor to the east. It is as if the people of this place are simply drained dry and have had enough of that and it is time to pay attention to what really matters, “the humanity.” And anyway, for the people of the tent villages, the complexity and controversy of politics/religious differences have never been important in the face of the every-day concerns of just living.

Three days after the nightmare of October 8th, this tent village was erected and families randomly began to appear. To live here, there was no screening or qualifying. If there was a tent, it was available and Tahira is profoundly thankful to the Dewan Group: This is not the home they had before but where exactly would they be if not in this place?

The camp has matured now, approaching the age of two months. Things are settled into a routine with initial major problems brought to the level of being minor or maybe just annoying. There are the typical camp sanitation problems and there is a low-voltage electricity problem that affects the equipment and the lighting (about this, I will speak to my new friend Saeed who is an engineer for the AJK Electric Department). There is enough food and plenty of clean water; enough blankets too, but there is a need for more winter clothing for when this unusual warm spell inevitably gives way to winter. Psychologically, Sajid says, the people here have few problems. Certainly they are unhappy with all that has happened, he says, and of course with having to live in a tent village, but they are holding up well all things considered. Sajid suggests that there is a reluctant acceptance; an understanding that the carnage is over and there is, at least, some consistency in the tents they occupy.

I sit across the tent from Tahira Yasmeen, 24, and her father Magta Khan, 70. Tahira is unmarried and has three sisters and four brothers. She has graciously accepted the invitation to talk to me and her serene demeanor puts my two companions and me at ease immediately. She sits cross legged on the floor with her four year old sister on her lap. Magta sits beside her and Tahira’s siblings absent-mindedly wander in and out of the tent as we talk. In Urdu, Tahira and Magta speak softly and calmly, admitting with small smiles that they have never met a westerner before.

Through an interpreter, Tahira describes her life before she came here and what it is like now. Lineal distance measurements are not part of explaining things and she describes her former home’s location in more practical terms, as “seven hours away,” meaning to travel from there to Muzaffarabad requires seven hours of steady downhill walking. She explains that at her home the winter snows commonly pile to a depth of eight meters and in their village of perhaps one hundred people, the question of simply traveling from one house to another is something to be considered carefully. Once the snow accumulates, the family stays inside for months. Neither Tahira or her father know the elevation of their village and this reminds me of how we westerners get caught up with analyzing; with statistics, with details. Really, what possible importance could a statistic like that have?

Tahira’s family of twelve shared a large ten room house. She shows us photos of her family and where they lived up high, in the small village. The landscape is breath-taking with huge, craggy snow covered mountains and a raging blue, white-foamed river. Magta says it is full of big, hungry trout. Tahira’s description of her life back then is idyllic as her family used the warm months to store wheat flour, maze, vegetables and spices for the long hard winter. They had goats and a cow, too.

Before and after the deep snows, in the village there was primary school for the children. The older ones had a two hour, one-way walk to their secondary school.

Of course, the earthquake changed all that. Tahira’s description of the quake brought a new animation to her demeanor and her eyes grew teary. Her father also grew tense at the retelling of the story. There was the trauma of the unworldly gyrating and heaving and the family’s stumbling, crawling exodus from the house which collapsed soon after. Then, there was the stunned bewilderment at the magnitude of the losses followed by sheer gratitude that no one was killed or injured. Reason returned and they took stock: The goats and cow were killed by the collapsed barn, the winter food stores were buried under the flattened concrete rubble of the house and so there was no food or shelter for the impending deep winter. So, they headed down to Muzaffarabad and found themselves here at the Dewan Group Tent Camp.

Tahira’s largest objection to the tent camp is that she is surrounded by strangers. Her life until now had been with a select few family members and life-long neighbors. Things didn’t change dramatically from one day to the next. It was a season-to-season life that was occasionally spiced with a marriage or a birth or a death. For a visitor to the tent village, it is impossible to get an emotional grip on what it was like for Tahira and her family as they endured the horror of the quake itself followed by their ejection from that serene and predictable life and were inserted into the anxious, semi-chaos of a tent village full of strangers. And then, add the exasperation of the claustrophobia-inducing tiny tent. For the outsider attempting to empathize, the situation is rendered incomprehensable by the realization that in northern Pakistan and Azad Kashmir, there are hundreds of thousands of other families with similar and no less profound stories.

And so Tahira says she feels depressed sometimes but that she is very thankful to the people who provided this camp. Her unhappiness is completely understandable and it is clear she will deal with it in a rational way as she confidently states that they will move back to their mountain village in the spring. The government benefits are not large but they are enough so that they can go back and build a modest shelter. She says that their lives there will not be as good: For sure, there will not be a ten room house but there will be some kind of home, a garden and livestock, and their family and those neighbors who return. The mountains and that gushing river will be there too.

Through their earthquake-induced profound losses, backed up by a tough-as-nails lifestyle, these people understand what is important in life. It is a hard-won embracing of “what is” and a fundamental, gut-level understanding that each additional breath they and their loved ones take is something for which to be thankful. It’s a difficult concept to grasp for a western visitor who can get caught up in soft-lifestyle trivialities. So, for these simple people of the remote villages, family, consistency, routine and old friends are necessary things; the stuff of contentment and what matters most.

Tahira’s story is told here but it is my guess that she won’t ever see this article ,and if she does, it will interest her only momentarily. It will not hold any importance for her.