The Children Don’t Cry

The Children Don’t Cry

Muzaffarabad, Azad Kashmir
Saturday, December 10, 2005

When I arrived here in Azad Kashmir a month ago, it was as obvious to me as were the crushed buildings and the tent villages: The children of this place don’t cry.

It is December now. The mornings are cold, and for two months now these children have been sleeping in tiny tents with their families. The food is sparse, the sanitary conditions terrible. Many have injuries. But despite all this, in the daytime most of the children in these tent camps do the things that all children do when they have time and freedom: They play together and explore.

From the hidden, remote mountain villages far from this city, these children have landed here in Muzaffarabad to scuttle about; to wander hand-in-hand, exploring this peculiar city-world of crushed buildings, tent villages, helicopters and strangers. Their sweet faces don’t say much about what is going on inside but there is something solid and steady in those little eyes. The locals tell you that the strength has to do with the sturdiness that has been instilled in these children from their first days. These children can thank their parents and their culture for that.

This afternoon I sat on a rock overlooking the Al Ghadmat Tent Camp, forty feet below. On a sandbar next to the Neelum River, the camp has three hundred 10 x 12 foot tents neatly arranged in rows. There are ten to twelve people in each tent. I watched the women sitting below, holding their blanket-swaddled infants close in the semi-warmth of the December noonday sun, their men off to roam the busy streets. A small but lanky girl, probably eight years old, emerged from the swarming throng behind me and walked quickly past my position. Headed for her family’s tent below, she was aiming for the damp foot path that cut steeply down the embankment before me. Perfectly balanced on the top of her little head was a flexible plastic water jug filled with at least a gallon of water. Not slowing her pace in the least, she plunged down the slope in her flimsy sandals. In absolute sure-footed control, she quickly and perfectly negotiated the slippery trail to the flats below. It was a minor thing that of course went unnoticed by everyone around me but that small performance said volumes about the self-sufficiency and matter-of-factness of these children. I know adults back home who, equipped with full lug-soled hiking boots and trekking poles, would not have attempted that slope. And I grin to myself when I think of them negotiating it with a ten pound water jug balanced on their heads.

But then there are the little ones who authorities call “affected.” Shell-shocked into fearful little bundles, they are barely able to walk and they literally cling to each other when they do. They are silent. The quake was violent beyond words and these children were inside their homes or in schools when it came. Generated by the quake, there was a fiendish, from-Hell roar and their little bodies were knocked flat to the floor to be pummeled over and over as they struggled to get up. For them, it must have seemed to go on and on and their gentle minds just did not understand what or why this was happening. And afterwards, they didn’t understand the missing parents and brothers and sisters: a different kind of shell shock. It is impossible to say why the quake’s wicked violence traumatized some children and not others.

Affected or not, all these children bring tears to my eyes. I don’t know what to do about it except to sit here at this laptop in the middle of this Kashmir night to plea with the world to pay attention. In the daytime, I mingle with the kids when I can; to give them chocolates and to offer their parents some money. To these children, clearly I am a westerner, and in the streets, should I pause for any reason, groups of them materialize in front of me with their beautiful dirty little faces staring up at me. For the strong ones and for the affected ones, it is all so incredibly sad and there is no room for a “you just had to be there” excuse to justify not getting a grasp of this. Dear reader, pay attention to what is coming to you in the media about northern Pakistan and Kashmir and get clear that this is not just another news story.