Monday, October 9, 2006

October 8, 2005: A Jolt Not Soon Forgotten

Cross posted at the AF Blog

On a Saturday, one year ago at precisely 8:50 A.M., I was in my bed, sleeping soundly. Suddenly everything began vigorously swaying left and right. At first, the shock of the motion had me confused, but as I opened my eyes I realized it was an earthquake. I got up to go stand beneath the beam of the bathroom door (dad’s orders since we were kids; apparently the safest place to be) but I couldn’t walk more than four steps without losing my balance and falling to the ground. The house was a big bowl of jello and I was somewhere in the middle of it all. This was the biggest quake I had ever experienced and was certain my house would collapse any minute.

Fortunately no serious damage occurred, although I was so scared after the 6 minutes had elapsed that I didn’t move from beneath the beam for a good 20 minutes.

Shortly after I learnt that a ten story apartment building in my city, Islamabad, had just collapsed. I hopped in my car and drove over to the site. There were hundreds of cars parked alongside the road as I approached and a shot of adrenaline rushed through my veins. Thoughts of all the people I knew living in that building sparked all kinds of fears. One of my friends was in the building with his mother, grandmother, sister and cousin when it collapsed. The latter three made it out, but his mother and grandmother stayed trapped inside at the ground floor level beneath the tons of rubble.

My friends had joined me as I arrived and we all promptly began helping everyone clear the rubble. Unfortunately, our fervor was not enough to lift enormous blocks of concrete that were weighing down the remains of the building, which was now only 20 feet above the ground.

As the day progressed, my friend feared his family may declare his mother and grandmother deceased and no amount of support would help eradicate the feeling of emptiness in his mind. We also soon learnt that what happened in Islamabad was only an iota of what the northern areas of Pakistan and north-western region of India had experienced during those 6 devastating minutes.

A friend of mine shot out a text message and asked that we all meet at his house the following morning to see what it is that we can do to help people up north. At the time, we were completely clueless at the magnitude of devastation and loss of lives. Regardless, something inside made us feel we had to act promptly before things got worse. We gathered at his house around 10 am and by 12 pm some folks had dropped off a few box loads of things that they wanted to have sent to the northern areas. We promptly decided to text others and ask them to give us any donations (clothes, money, food, etc) that they wanted to contribute and we decided to take my pickup truck and go up.

Shortly after, I left to go home and gather my things for the 8 hour drive and by 3 pm, as I returned to my friend’s house in my pickup, I couldn’t help but gasp for air. In the 2 hours I had been absent, people we all knew had managed to drop phenomenal amounts of donations that, when piled up, reached as high as 9 feet in the air and covered his entire garden, almost 40 square yards. I realized that my pickup was not going to be enough anymore.

We left for Balakot, the city we heard to be the most devastated, with 10 open back trucks (similar to the largest U-Haul trucks) and 4 personal cars, including my pickup. In all, we were about 13 people (originally only meant to be 3-4). We left Islamabad at 10 pm that evening and arrived at the entrance of Balakot at about 5 am, a commercial city that led to Saif-ul-Maluk, a beautiful body of water in a valley atop mountains (known as a jheel in Urdu). The road entering the city was broken and there was only one way into it so stood first in line, waiting for the road to be cleared.

As the bulldozer finally gave us way at 11 am, we entered not knowing what to expect. Maybe it was better that way because within the first few minutes, all we saw were solid houses leveled like houses made of cards and dead bodies laying everywhere!!

Recalling this trip is difficult, even now and I think the world and media has spoken enough about the details that came after. I am proud of the fact that my friends and I were the first to reach Balakot with the intention of providing relief goods to people in utter dismay.

Those 6 minutes had cost about 80,000 lives and forced over 2.9 million people to suddenly become homeless, foodless, downsized their families by generations and, well, it only got worse. I had no emotions to describe any of this at the time, no words, not even my photographs caught a glimpse of the enormity of damage. Like a giant stepping on a tin can.

I spent the next 3 weeks making trips up north with a variety of friends (kudos to all of them for the work we did together to help those we had no relations with) and eventually ended up leaving Nortel to join an NGO and head their relief activities for both the N.W.F.P. and Kashmir.

You know, it’s really interesting how one thing led to another during those few months. I had returned from the US, just a year prior to the quake, not sure of what I wanted to do with my life. Having recently graduated, I was confused about my options. I wanted to do something meaningful but unfortunately it had to be at the cost of so much suffering. One always feels so helpless about this work, yet if it is productively contributing to improving someone’s life, it feels right.

One year ago today, I found opportunity to apply as much of myself and those around me for a better future; one that provides a helping hand, rather than a crutch without stable ground to stand on.

I hope you do to, just don’t wait for it to happen like I did, do something now. Feed the beggar asking for charity. Discourage helplessness; encourage self-help instead.

There is opportunity in hope: My friend’s mother and grandmother were found 5 days later, alive…
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