BALAKOT, PAKISTAN Mar 26, 2012 – His wrinkles and deep penetrating eyes embalm the sorrow he carefully tries to hide as Muhammad Arif Khan, 57, looks away from me while unfolding the bitter episode he and the citizens of Balakot experienced on that fateful day. As if tears would roll if we had made eye contact in this interview.
For someone who hadn’t experienced a deadly earthquake, this reporter needled to have a near-live narration from survivors such as him, but carefully treading on the fringes of emotion and local culture so as not to shake the man too much. Mr Arif wasn’t well on that fateful day of October 8, 2005. He arranged for an alternative teacher to teach his English class that morning and headed out to hospital to tend a wound on his left shin. There he saw the staff were stitching up a nasty gash on the head of a boy who was wailing and struggling. He couldn’t stomach the gore and walked out of the dressing room. That’s when the world flipped like a hot pancake.
“I was bouncing like a rubber ball… up down, up down for about two or three times. People were screaming and children crying. We didn’t know what hit us. That earthquake came in for 30 seconds or so and just within those seconds the entire Balakot town went down with it. Only a few homes and buildings survived, and 15,000 people perished. More than 100 people became paralysed due to spinal injury,” he said.
The 7.6 magnitude earthquake with its epicentre located in Muzaffarabad, Azad Kashmir was Pakistan’s worst disaster. Over a quarter of Balakot’s 40,000 people were killed when the quake struck, many of them children. The town and villages were mayhem as friends and relatives tried to save lives and salvage whatever they could. The surviving hospital staff picked him off the floor to drag him to safety outside and all he could see was just dust and debris all around. And then he saw rubbles and mangled steel that were once shops and offices. Those trapped were screaming for help. That’s when he remembered his students in school.
“Our secondary school had 850 students. Some classes were indoors while others were held under trees. Those in the outdoors survived the quake. Many in the classrooms died either instantly or a painful death moments later,” he paused and looked away. There was a long silence.
The school situation worsened when a laboratory caught fire and spread across to three adjoining classrooms. Some 150 pupils died along with three teachers, mostly trapped in the rubble and burnt to death while still alive. Those screams for help were woeful. There was nothing they could do in the pandemonium that struck, and this was what haunted this English teacher to this very day. Torn between the desire to be there amongst his beloved pupils and colleagues so that he may save them, and not comprehending why Allah selectively ejected him from the school crowd that day and stashed him safely away in the hospital. He was clearly disturbed by this recollection.
“How many kids do you have Mr. Arif?,” I digressed. He had four. He briefly mentioned that while his family members were safe, his entire abode crumbled to the ground. And the conversation immediately went back to the school. His school.
Pupils who survived tried to escape through the galvanized steel roofs that collapsed with the structure. Some were caught under rafters and trusses while ill-equipped local rescuers did their utmost to pry open the mangled wooded frames and mortar. It was a sad day for the Balakot High School. Arif said it was a day later that a Korean NGO arrived with tracker dogs to extricate the bodies and other unlikely survivors. Along with them came the Chinese military rescue squad and the Pakistani military.
HALUAN humanitarian aid volunteer Dr Suraiya Ibrahim who accompanied the interview recalled that her team visited Balakot several weeks after the earthquake. The team of five doctors, three female and two males headed by the then Chairman of HALUAN Health Club, Dr Mohd Zamrin Dimon, saw several other NGOs including the well-known medical NGO team called the Pakistani Islamic Medical Association (PIMA) had proceeded with their humanitarian assistance. They were operating in tents. HALUAN proceeded to offer its services over at Battagram instead where more help was needed.
Hundreds of patients streamed into the Balakot medical campsite situated not far away from a fast flowing river with chilling water. It was mid-winter and the living conditions were already harsh even without the earthquake. As roads and cliffs gave way to the high Richter macabre, rescue teams such as PIMA, Jamaati AlKhidmat, HALUAN and the rest of local and foreign NGOs made little beachhead into the stricken areas.
“Do you fear another earthquake?,” I asked. No, said Ariff, telling me he has accepted this bitter Balakot experience as a fate destined by Allah SWT. His roots have been there for over 200 years originating from an Afghani clan and he will stay put whatever happens. But the Pakistani Government has other plans for him and other residents of present-day Balakot. More on this in the ensuing stories about Pakistan post-quake era.
Bro. Y writes from Balakot, Pakistan