Seeing is believing, learning & understanding needs & concerns of quake survivors

What came next was a three-stage, somewhat treacherous journey with the Colonel and outgoing Operations Manager Isabel Gomes to the high altitude villages of the Ba Sangar Katha Valley above the devastated town of Balakot, North West Frontier Province (NWFP), to better understand the needs of families remaining above the 5,000 feet snow line. No other relief agency is working in the area.

“These people are positive and they refuse to let this earthquake destroy them, but they are struggling to obtain adequate shelter and warmth to survive the winter,” said Lyman.

The harrowing 35km trip from World Vision’s base in Mansehra up to the devastated Balakot valley and the villages at 8,000 feet sadly illustrated the ‘it’ that indiscrimatedly devastated the lives of millions of people in just a few seconds.

These people are positive and they refuse to let this earthquake destroy them Dodging roofing timbers that protruded out of the rubble, large concrete pillars with twisted reinforcing wire that once held up houses, shops, schools and clinics, swerving donkeys and brightly painted buses in the view of stunning snow-capped peaks, ironically added to that sense of feeling alive.

Yet gripping the seat as the vehicle lurched up the valley floor, our senses were assailed by smoke from cooking fires alongside the road, people sitting amongst the debris, doing the best they could and mothers squatting in the rubble refusing to move as their children still lay buried somewhere in the debris more than nine weeks on. For many just keeping alive today is a struggle.

Do I stay or do I go?
The decision to leave a demolished hut and remnant of now undernourished livestock in the mountains to live in a camp with ‘instant provision’ seems simple, yet for mountain dwellers who have lived for generations in the upper reaches, it is deeply rooted in culture and livelihood – both fiercely protected commodities in the North West Frontier Province.

...tribal and cultural customs of the mountain people are different to those in the valleys Ownership is a fundamental factor, since land vacated for more than 12 months is up for the taking and surviving livestock must be cared for. Survivors do not want to ‘abandon’ beloved family members who perished in the quake, nor lose their strong sense of community, since the tribal and cultural customs of the mountain people are different to those in the valleys.

Fresh graves & rotting bodies
Changing vehicles to make somewhat safer progress up the spine of a long, steep ridge untraversed by westerners until our visit was only a momentary distraction before the powerful smell of rotting bodies struck… and stayed.

We turned a hairpin corner after five attempts to see a collapsed building with school furniture strewn down the mountainside, too steep for people to salvage. Amongst the furniture were scattered notebooks and exercise books that the children had been using that fateful day. Children. They were all at school. What happened to them? How many died? What about the orphans? How many small fresh graves can I count?

How many small fresh graves can I count? Carefully manoeuvering around the tight hairpin bends we saw the remains of a school at about 6,500 feet. The whole building had collapsed down the mountains side and broken chairs and desks had cascaded down the slope. Tattered remains of notebooks and textbooks were blowing gently in the cold breeze.

Role dilemma
Apart from protecting the vulnerable and wielding force that the regular police lack, the army was charged with overseeing the earthquake relief response – a situation that has challenged humanitarians and politicians alike.

While some in the international community complain that the Pakistani Army has such a strong presence in this disaster area, the local populace welcomes the army with open arms.

Perhaps one of the factors is the lack of understanding of the colourful but often violent history of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the close relationship between the civil population and the military that ensued.

These tribal areas have been fiercely independent over the centuries. The British in the old days of the Raj, sent military expeditions time and again to the NWFP to subdue the rebellious tribes. These military columns brought peace to the general populace as well as taxes to the treasury – the price of peace.

Those who lived in the valleys have always been seen as ‘fair game’ and ‘wealthy’ whilst those who lived high up in the mountains were far away from law and order and could therefore create havoc whenever they wished. was still evident that these resilient, positive people need short-term assistance Today, when these people stretch the boundaries of the law too far, the military make forays into the mountains to enforce the law. With the earthquake came incredible destruction and human misery, which bandits from mountain sanctuaries exploited until the military stepped in. In the eyes of the people, the army brings order to chaos. The army works for the people. The army pays wages to labourers without any form of corruption. They trust the army.

Not surprisingly, many people in the NWFP are dismayed that the army will hand over relief operations to the civilian government.

Back to living – World Vision\'s role
Finally we turned a corner and stopped behind the bulldozer that had miraculously carved this track out of the mountain.

From there, we walked along the old trail for about one kilometre, talking about the great needs of the people in this devastated region. We came across shelters that had been quite well made out of corrugated iron, tarpaulins covering animal shelters and tents erected for women-headed households.

We were well received with ‘Pakistani chai’ and biscuits, yet it was still evident that these resilient, positive people need short-term assistance to reestablish themselves and obtain adequate shelter and warmth to survive the winter.

As a result of the assessment, World Vision plans to distribute mattresses, rehabilitation kits*, tarpaulins, cooking sets, and water purification tablets for some 500 families in the villages of Dheri, Josucha, Kansh and Barsangarh, from a distribution point at the entrance to the valley.

Better understanding the needs and the desires of these mountain dwellers, we were safely deposited back to our team house in Mansehra, feeling less ‘guilty’ about the sense of feeling alive but more determined to use it and share it with those who have lost hope of feeling it again.