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Kashmir diary
22 December 2005
by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy

Volunteer Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy shares her experience working with Cuban doctors, assisting in Balakot, Pakistan, months after the quake devastated south Asia. Photo by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy/open democracy.Volunteer Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy shares her experience working with Cuban doctors, assisting in Balakot, Pakistan, months after the quake devastated south Asia. Photo by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy/open democracy.
Bissian, Pakistan: Monday December 12th 2005

Snow has covered the mountains surrounding Balakot. At night, the temperature drops to -15 degrees as families huddle close together to keep warm. The tents provided by the relief organizations do little to keep the cold wind from blowing through. Balakot is a graveyard and everyone here has a story that breaks your heart.

I arrived at the Khanpur Medical relief Camp to volunteer as a translator for the Cuban doctors who have come on a 6-month stint to provide medical assistance in the earthquake affected zone. As the helicopter hovered above, I could see the destruction below. The city of Balakot and its surrounding areas are now refugee zones. Entire buildings have collapsed. Roads have split open, houses crushed underneath the mountains. Amidst the debris rows of UNHCR tents line the side of the road. The stench of dead bodies still lingers in the air, and there is a sense of desperation amongst the refugees. For them their world has come crashing down and the relief organisations can never fill the void the earthquake has left in their lives.

Some 400 patients visit Khanpur Medical camp each day to get free medicines, consultations, x-rays, ECG tests, and ultrasounds. The camp, run by Cuban doctors, provides much needed relief to the people in this area who are suffering from broken bones, pneumonia, severe respiratory diseases, severe kidney problems, diarrhea, scabies, urinary infections and post-traumatic disorders. These are the lucky ones. They made it through the brutal earthquake and the aftershocks…But they know that they will not survive the winter in these conditions.

The tent I am sharing with two other volunteers was freezing cold last night. Gas heaters are not allowed inside tents because of the danger they pose. Already several fires in nearby camps have claimed the lives of young children. My fingers and toes were numb as I struggled to sleep. In the tent behind me a baby wailed the night through. These are the brutal living conditions that these people have to endure on a daily basis. No photograph or television news piece can do justice to what these people are going through.

At 2.47am an earthquake (not a tremor) measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale rocked the area. The refugees rushed out of their tents, the babies started howling and fear spread through the camp. The earth shook with intensity, a loud bang and then silence. Then, the wailing began again. The fear of not knowing which building will fall next, which family member will succumb next has shaken these people to the core. Everywhere I went, the same question was repeated, "why are we being punished, what have we done to deserve this?" For many in Balakot, the world has already come to an end, the lights have already dimmed...Some time later, most people returned to their tents. They had seen another earthquake through and when the call to prayers was announced at dawn, they headed to the mosque to thank God for saving them yet again.

Tuesday December 13th 2005

At 7am the patients start to line up. Some walk down for miles from their tents in the mountains, others come from as far away as Muzzafrabad. The Cuban doctors have built quite a reputation for themselves here and the locals have taken to them immediately. Their quiet, unassuming ways have won them respect. Their message is clear; they are here to stay and are going to help as many people as possible. These doctors and nurses are taking Urdu language lessons from Mr. Bhatti (the camp director) so that they can communicate more effectively with their patients. Their dedication is an inspiration to the other relief workers in the area.

Kiran Bibi, a 25-year-old woman who lost 3 children in the earthquake and whose only surviving child is in danger of succumbing to a respiratory disease, cannot find the words to thank the doctors for helping her. Tears stream down her face when the doctors give her free medicines, kind words and reassurances that they are here 24 hours a day for her if she needs them.

This evening I sat with a few Cuban doctors to understand why they chose to come to Pakistan. Since Cuba and Pakistan have limited diplomatic relationships and the people of the two countries do not share the same culture, language or religion, many of us are intrigued by the help that the Cuban government has given to Pakistan. Over 1500 doctors have come on a 6-month stint and are working in 30 such camps across the devastated zone.

Wednesday December 14th 2005

Before coming to the region, I had read reports that the Pakistani army was not doing enough to help the people affected by the earthquake. But once I got there, I understood the gravity of the situation. The Pakistani army has a mammoth task ahead of them and they are trying their best to cope with the situation. No third world country is equipped to handle a disaster of this magnitude. I see Pakistani army helicopters, trucks, and personnel carrying supplies, setting up camps and rebuilding broken roads and bridges. They work around the clock, but there is always something left to do at the end of the day. More demands and more expectations...

Khan Sahib, a 70-year-old grandfather, put the situation in context for me this evening. He has lost his entire family, including several grandchildren. "When god takes everything away all at once – lives, property, health, wealth – well then nobody can ever replace it all, as much as they try to. We are grateful to the army, the volunteers, the non-profits. They are doing what they can, but they can never bring back our loved ones, our homes, and our lives. So nothing they can ever do, will be enough."

Tonight the director of the camp informed us that with the temperature dropping and the illnesses multiplying, medicines were running in short supply. He would have to start reaching out to people in Islamabad in order to fill the void. As the world's attention drifts away from Pakistan, the international help seems to be drying up. A second wave of disaster is around the corner for Pakistan. As soon as the first snow falls in the valley, the death toll is bound to rise. Last year at this time, the valleys were covered with snow, so everyone here knows it’s only a matter of time before the first flake drifts down, bringing with it more death and destruction.

Thursday December 15, 2005

Last night was the coldest night of the week by far. Most of us shivered through the night. At 2am we were awakened by the camp guard. A young mother had brought her 9-month-old baby who was suffering from severe pneumonia to the camp and the Cuban doctors needed translators to help communicate with the woman. By early morning, the baby was doing much better and mother and son went back to their relief camp.

We woke up to the news that a 40-year-old woman had been found alive 63 days after the earthquake in Muzaffrabad. Everybody marvelled at the miracle and hoped that the woman would be able to lead a normal life. Wild rumors spread throughout the relief camps and refugees who were still searching for the bodies of their loved ones started praying for small miracles.

We headed out to the city of Balakot to see how the relief operations were coming along there. We arrived at a graveyard. On both sides of the road workers were busy clearing debris, breaking down the walls of buildings that were threatening to collapse with each passing tremor. Cracked pots and pans, torn photographs, and broken flowerpots were visible through the debris. As we walked up the hill we came across a girls’ high school that had been flattened by the earthquake. The government had attempted to rebuild the structure and now classes were being held in shacks made out of tin. A young man standing close to the school told us that almost 600 girls had died in this school alone. Mounds of fresh earth lay beside the school where some of the girls had been buried. There were no headstones with names, just lines of graves, some with fresh flowers…

Further down the road, a makeshift relief camp had been set up. Young boys played cricket in an open field, while the young girls carried jars of water from the water tank to their tents. Here we met Mir Afzal a local resident who told us that his 85-year-old mother kissed his hand before dying in his arms on 8 October. “My mother, my wife, my daughter, my granddaughter, they all died”, he told us. His 5-year-old daughter survived and he spent the first night comforting her in the darkness, shielding her from the cold rain. “She kept asking me for her mother, and I didn’t know what to tell her,” he said. Afzal later sent his daughter to live with his aunt in Rawalpindi.

Later that afternoon, two young girls arrived at the medical camp seeking help. Amina and Farah had walked for miles to bring their 15-month-old baby brother who was suffering from high fever and diarrhea to the doctors. The earthquake has forced many young children to grow up fast. The parents of these girls were severely injured in the earthquake and the day-to-day running of the household now falls on their tiny shoulders.

Just when the camp was low on medicines and tetanus injections a German doctor, who had spent a week seeing patients in Kashmir, dropped by. He donated all his medicines and equipment to the Khanpur medical camp before flying off to Frankfurt.

Friday December 16, 2005

The water was freezing as I washed my face in the morning. As the week has progressed, the temperature has continued to drop and today was definitely the coldest morning of the week. The Cuban nurses wore several layers of clothing and took turns standing around the gas heater. Some remarked how this would be their first Christmas away from Cuba and away from their families. Others joked about how this could be their first white Christmas ever.

We packed our things and waited for our ride back to Islamabad. This would be our last day at the camp. More volunteers were arriving and I would be back to replace them in a few weeks.

This morning two Malaysian doctors arrived to help out at the Khanpur camp. They had come from Kuala Lumpur to volunteer for a week, and immediately set off to work.

Two friends brought Haji Kadeer, who was suffering from severe kidney pain, to the camp. Dr. Juan Alberto immediately advised him to get an injection for the pain and sent him to the Cuban hospital down the road to get an ultrasound. Kadeer kept shaking his head and mumbling under his breath. His entire family had perished in the earthquake including his four children and the grief he was suffering was too much for him to bear. “My babies,” he kept saying, “they took them all away, they didn’t even leave one behind. I just want one back…” Dr. Alberto didn’t need me to translate the grief to him; the language of pain is universal…

We left in the afternoon and as we drove away the reality of the situation hit us hard. We had the opportunity to leave, we had homes and families to go back to, but for these people this was their life now. They had nowhere else to go and no other family to turn to. The disaster has made millions homeless and millions refugees, and their situation will not change until spring arrives. This winter, life is going to be spent in tents; in the hope that their loved ones, the ones who survived, will make it through with them.