Reaching the most isolated after an earthquake

“We were playing a silly game at the bank of the river, throwing a half empty water bottle at each other, laughing every time one of us had to duck away from it, when suddenly the earth began to shake. It started very slowly, but then we were thrown violently back and forth. We saw that a large part of the mountain above our village broke off and sent giant boulders at high speed down toward our houses, crashing everything in the way. Our mothers, brothers and sisters were in the village at the time and so we were very scared, just holding tightly onto each other and weeping”.

As Eshwaria (10) and Sajina (7) tell me how they experienced the most recent disaster that hit their village, I am glancing into the canyon through which we have come, and it is hard for me to believe that we finally made it up here. Immediately after the earthquake on the 26th of October severe weather had set in, not only making the struggle for the affected communities even harder, but also rendering it impossible to reach them. Twice we had to abandon this mission because snow storms blocked the pass and access to the Chitral Valley. This time we were luckier. The skies were clear now, but what a journey lay behind us!? We had to pass through some districts where the ongoing insurgency in North-Western Pakistan could have a severe effect on our security. Only armored vehicles and heavily armed escorts had allowed us to be rushed through.

I am still at awe when I think how our drivers negotiated the land cruisers up and down the 3000m high Lowari pass. The slippery serpentines, snowfall beside the roads higher than the cars themselves. The oncoming heavy trucks with their beautiful Pakistani truck art at times only left millimetres of space for us between a collision and the abyss. Finally we arrived in Chitral Valley, but our destination was still much farther on, a 1400 meter high village, down a side valley. The road to this valley was completely washed away by recent floods and destroyed by the earthquake. Our cars had to go through river beds and crawl along steep cliffs.

A photo of cars on a road that is blocked.
UNICEF/Pakistan2015/Asad ZaidiThe combination of earthquake and flood have washed away the road into the Chitral valley.

The seclusion of the place makes the disaster response a true nightmare. However, for the people who live here, it has also been bliss. More or less cut off from the rest of the world for centuries, this community has been able to preserve their unique culture and way of life. I am now happy to have finally arrived in Bumburet, a village in the land of the Kalash people, an isolated ethnic group with a polytheistic nature focussed religion. The Kalash speak their own language and continue to practice historic traditions. Having unusually bright eyes and fair skin for this part of the world, they claim to be decedents of the army of Alexander the Great.

The sun is glistening through the beautifully coloured autumn foliage, and the massive snow covered mountains of the Hindukush rise like cathedrals in the background. The village, or better what is left of it, lies peacefully on a white water river bank. Busy goats and ducks are wandering around, donkeys stoically carry away unbelievably heavy loads of rubble. A group of women, dressed in beautiful embroidery and wearing hats with ornaments in all colours of the rainbow, greet us by putting orange shawls around our necks. Curious children come running to us from all directions and I get to know Eshwaria and Sajina. They tell me how extremely lucky they have been.

When the tremor was finally over the two girls had run back to the village that day. Everyone in the village was still alive and the injured were well taken care of by the village nurse, Shireen. Shireen treated the wounded and stabilised the seriously injured, so that they could be transported down to the next hospital in the town of Chitral in the main valley. The two girls pull me enthusiastically on my sleeves: “You have to meet Shireen!”

With every breath drawn, Shireen (30) shows poise and the typical strong status that women have in Kalash society. She tells me that wives can even leave their husband and pick a new one if they don’t love him anymore. Of course she can work and have children at the same time, all women in her family do. “My younger sister even became a police officer down in Chitral!” All this seems quite unreal to me, at least not what I had expected in a rural community in the extreme North-West of Pakistan, a stone’s throw away from Afghanistan.

Shireen takes me on a walk through her village. From her basic, but well-kept health center we walk to the Jasta Khan, the main temple of the faith. The walls are filled with drawings of wild animals reminding me of Stone Age rock carvings that I had seen once in a cave in France. I think to myself that nature must play a very important role in the lives of these people and, once I enter, the thought is reaffirmed: nature has not spared this building. An entire wall of this most holy site has collapsed. “This is a big problem for us now, because we need to celebrate the Winter Festival soon, a celebration to ask the god Sorizan to protect us”, says Shireen.

A building that has been destroyed by earthquake.
UNICEF/Pakistan2015/Asad ZaidiDestruction all around, as a part of the mountain broke off, sending large rocks at high speed through the village, destroying everything in their path.

And protection is desperately needed here. The earthquake, which hit the village, was the second big disaster this year. Most recently in June, a flash flood had destroyed large parts of the village including its fields and irrigation systems. “Most of our harvest was ruined and we were only slowly recovering when the earth began to move underneath our feet. But what can we do? Up here we have always been exposed to nature’s will and we must go on for our children.”

I am impressed by her spirit of resilience and I know that one of the reasons why nobody died up here must have been the fact that this community was well prepared. Only one week before the earthquake, the children of the village had learned simple but live-saving behaviour that can reduce risks during disasters. For example, Eshwaria, Sajina and their friends had learned to crawl under a table or desk when a tremor starts, to protect themselves from falling debris. These life-saving tips had been nicely illustrated in picture books which were a gift from the British people, designed and distributed by UNICEF to schools all over the country.

We go to another holy place, protected by Dezalik, the goddess of women and children, a compound where women go during menstruation and which also serves as maternity ward. “Here you have to stay outside, men are not allowed,” says Shireen in a resolute voice. “If you were a menstruating or pregnant woman I could have shown you the destroyed latrines and fresh water system.” Well, I guess there is no room for negotiations then, I think, and I remain out front. Shireen, who also serves as the village midwife, explains that the filtration of water and sanitation system, which UNICEF and the UK provide, is of utmost importance. “As you can imagine Daniel, for the sake of health and dignity we need to uphold certain hygienic standards during child delivery and menstruation.”

A quick visit to her half-destroyed house where I meet her step mother, who is watching over Shireen’s two young children, then we rush to the community center, to meet Eshwaria and Sajina again. The girls are attending a hygiene promotion session together with the other children and women of the village. The group is listening attentively as a colleague from our partner organisation, “Islamic Relief” explains the content of the hygiene kits, which we were able to distribute thanks to another British donation, to all disaster affected households.

Toothbrush, soap, buckets, detergent… How I always take these things for granted! But after the long, strenuous and exhausting journey to bring these items up here, I understand how precious this donation must be for the Kalash people in this village. They have all survived the earthquake — now certainly none of their children should die of diarrhoea or other hygiene related diseases, which can be so easily prevented.

Daniel Timme is Chief of Advocacy & Communication in the UNICEF Pakistan Country Office

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