Quake families in mass return to devastation

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

There was no celebration to mark the return of Qazi-ur Rahman and his family to the village of Dandar, high above the Saraash Valley, North West Frontier Province. It was a silent, sombre affair, following a dangerous journey by overloaded jeep on the winding track cut into the mountainside.

Expectations among the children before the precarious ride from the valley below had been high. Perhaps some of them had expected more; had forgotten the total devastation they had left behind after the earthquake had shattered their world.

The family left a tent village in Upper Narha, Balakot, that day to gaze upon the rubble of their homes for the first time since they had been evacuated to receive aid in the valley below.

We have so many problems that we hardly know where to begin Little has changed since those first, frightening dark hours. Only the weather is kinder, spring sunshine bathing the green mountain slopes with a gentle warmth to bring a hint of hope.

Still we are greeted by smiles as we sit high in the Himalayan foothills, surrounded by majestic snowcapped peaks and offered refreshing green tea in the shade of the solitary
Chinar tree.

The reminders during the two-hour hike to reach the village of those lost in these remote mountain areas lay at every turn; graveyards with row upon row of tiny mounds marking the scale of tragedy in human lives.

In the distance the township of Balakot lies strewn across the valley floor, like a toy town of tiny bricks swept aside to total destruction by an angry child.

Qazi-ur Rahman breaks from clearing the wreckage of his home to tell his story. The village suffered total destruction; every house destroyed, crops and livestock lost. The debris of a shattered community lies all around us.

“We have so many problems that we hardly know where to begin,” said Qazi-Ur Rahman. “It will take up to 30 days to clear the rubble before we can even start to rebuild our homes,” he added.

Each family has received eight sheets of corrugated iron, but it is enough to construct one small room only, he explains. The land on which he grew his crops, the essence of their livelihood, will also need to be cleared and prepared. The family has no income, except by drawing on the first payment of Government compensation for reconstruction, 25,000 Pakistani Rupees (US$416).

Food is available, but only by hiring a jeep at a cost of 1,000 Pakistani Rupees to drive from Saraash once a week to deliver needed provisions.

Qazi-ur Rahman’s story is typical of those who have returned to their point of origin to face a fresh battle – how to rebuild their shattered lives from scratch.

At Dandar, 400 families have made the trek back to their village in line with Government directives for them to go home to begin rebuilding their communities, their lives. Yet their homes are still rubble, their livelihoods lost. The despair can be seen etched into the faces of those responsible for the wellbeing of their families.

Before the earthquake, life had been good for Qazi-ur Rahman, his wife and nine children, living a simple rural existence high in the Himalayan foothills.

Even now, he says, it is hard to believe everything has been swept away. His father was killed in the earthquake. He also lost a daughter, nephew and niece. The land and livestock on which he and his family depended gone.

“We are respecting the directives to return, but we are not happy,” he says. “We do not have adequate homes, no water, the road is not good and no electricity.”

The nearest water point for the 4,000 people who have returned to Dandar is a two-kilometre trek across the mountains.

World Vision is looking at developing livelihoods to generate income, education and health, in partnership with the local community Dandar is one of 11 villages above the Saraash Valley being assessed and monitored by specialist World Vision teams in developing its support programming to help communities rebuild their lives.

“I am happy you are coming and you can see we still need help. Shukria,” says Qazi-ur Rahman.

“Thanks to God that we are safe but I do not know what future there is for our children and I am very sad when I compare the picture of our life before the earthquake with the picture of life now,” he adds.

An immediate priority for World Vision has been to relocate Child Friendly Spaces (CFS) to ensure children have a safe area in which to play and learn. Two have already been established in the area, with another three planned.

Other initiatives being considered focus on livelihood development, education and health, where World Vision is working closely in partnership with local communities, national and international agencies.

World Vision’s Sian Platt said: “We are set to implement programmes to support families to help them rebuild their lives. World Vision is looking at developing livelihoods to generate income, education and health, in partnership with the local community.”

The first step, she added, was a focus on protecting the most vulnerable members within communities, which was why World Vision had prioritised its child protection work. Education, she said, would also play a major part of long-term planning, working in partnership with local authorities.

World Vision has also appointed community mobilisers – members of the local communities able to help identify where support is needed and act as a link with the aid agency.

Ms Platt added: “The immediate relief effort may be over, but the rehabilitation phase is no less daunting and will be a long-haul to enable communities to rebuild a basic level of living standards. The suffering is still large scale and the way ahead strewn with dangers and difficult challenges.”

In the village of Dandar, Qazi-ur Rahman leads me to a narrow strip of ground cleared and prepared for planting during the three days since his return, along the perimeter of his land. He points to a newly planted pine sapling and smiles. It is new growth. I follow the line of his finger and see it is one of a dozen or so, which will afford protection as they grow. It is a small start, but he wants me to know it is a beginning.

It is a new hope…