From one epicentre to another

From Balakot to Barpak: I cried once again

Ten years after witnessing the horror created by a devastating earthquake in my country Pakistan, I was in Nepal’s Gorkha, a district at the centre of the 25 April 2015 earthquake. I had spent a year in Balakot, the epicentre, and in October 2015 I joined UNICEF Nepal country programme to lead the Gorkha Emergency Site Office.

On a recent trip to Barpak, the epicentre of the Gorkha Earthquake, almost a year after the calamity, I climbed to a nearby mound to see the level of destruction the earthquake brought in on this small beautiful mountain village. As I saw the destruction in one epicentre, my thoughts travelled to the scenes I had witnessed in the other epicentre a decade ago.  And tears filled my eyes once again.

Overhead view of a village/
Chandra Shekhar Karki for UNICEFAn aerial view of Barpak Village Development Committee in Gorkha District, epicentre of the earthquake, shows temporary shelters amidst damaged and destroyed houses.

I could see buildings either collapsed or standing with gaping cracks in them. I saw non-functional health posts and students studying under flimsy structures. I stayed there for a while comparing the two tragedies in terms of how it turned bustling cities and villages into ruins, leaving behind large number of people dead, injured and traumatized.

Indeed, this killer catastrophe changed people’s realities in a blink of an eye. Yet it takes ages to rebuild. In Barpak alone more than six dozen people lost their lives, including children. Many abandoned their damaged houses and migrated to bigger towns, while others ended up living in spontaneous camps and have been living under harsh conditions ever since.

I still saw fear in the eyes of the people of Barpak, especially the children. They went through so much, and each one of them has his or her own story of how the tragedy affected them. One adolescent girl living with family in an over-crowed shelter complained about how she finds it very difficult to change her dress in front of family members.

This killer beast is still talk of the town and its memories are refreshed with every new aftershock. There was one aftershock on the day I was in Barpak.

Compared to the visit to epicentre in Balakot, my visit to Barpak was one that ended on a high note. The celebrations of the village declaring itself being fully immunised was a remarkable achievement and symbolic of the comeback by people crippled by the devastating earthquake barely a year ago.

As I joined the hour-long procession of children chanting slogans and singing to celebrate their achievements in the lanes of Barpak, I passed through destroyed homes wherein people were busy clearing the rubble to re-construct their houses. The people here did not seem to be waiting for the support from the government and other relief agencies, which unfortunately has been taking a long time in coming, to start reconstruction. Life seemed to be moving towards normalcy in Barpak. Local shops were open, busy in buying and selling. Bitter memories seemed left behind.

A boy holding a sign
Chandra Shekhar Karki for UNICEF.A young boy holds a sign saying “Full Immunization, Safe Future” in Nepal in Barpak Village Development Committee in Gorkha District. The VDC achieved universal immunization coverage on 13 March 2016.

As I was driving back on the dirt road down to Gorkha town from Barpak, I reflected on how different this trip to the epicentre was compared to other trip in 2005. The horrific scenes I had witnessed then started floating once again in front of my eyes.

In the morning of October 8, 2005, a powerful earthquake of 7.6 magnitude had devastated the northern Himalayan Region in Pakistan.  As the humanitarian manager with the international charity, Oxfam GB, on the first day itself I travelled to Balakot, a small town, close to epicentre and hard hit by the quake.

What I witnessed was shocking. The buildings had been turned into heaps of rubble. When I climbed a small hill to see the scale of devastation, and saw what the wrath of the earthquake had done to the inhabitants of this once small beautiful town, my heart bled and cried.

Wherever I looked I saw collapsed buildings, hospital, schools and cracked roads.The most heart-wrenching scenes, however were in the schools, where hundreds of school children had been crushed under collapsed schools. The one thing that still strikes my memory now, is the khamoshi (silence) all around. It was the silence of shell-shocked people, shell-shocked parents. Of the 87,350 people who lost their lives in the 2005 quake, 19,000 were children. A generation lost.  How different from the Gorkha quake. Here too over 80 percent of the school buildings, poorly constructed, went down, but 25 April happened to be a Saturday, thus saving a lot of young lives.

It was an emotional and trying time for me back then, as well. Every half an hour the mountains used to rumble and tremble with big aftershocks. I could not sleep for the initial 72 hours, as I was busy distributing blankets and tents even in the middle of night. Yet I found myself full of energy even without eating and drinking during the day time, fasting in the month of Ramadan. I lived in Balakot for more than a year in my tented house and office and worked side by side with affected communities, helping them to recover from that horrendous tragedy. These were special moments in my life to be on the front line delivering for earthquake affected people day and night.

The world converged to support the earthquake victims, but the big push came from the people themselves. Time is the biggest healer indeed and after 10 years of reconstruction, Balakot is thriving with life again, trying to leave behind the bitter memories of that horrific incidence

The tragedies in both Balakot and Barpak remind me of the fact that nothing can be done alone. It takes collective effort and strong resolve of all key stakeholders including the State, UN and civil society organisations to help the poor and vulnerable people in rebuilding their lives and livelihoods in better and improved manner. But what I have witnessed in both these places, is that it is the resilience and hope of the people that helps heal best.

Muhammad Idrees Khan is an Emergency Specialist at UNICEF Gorkha Emergency Site

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