Vince Gainey recently returned from a two-week mission to Pakistan-administered Kashmir to conduct an assessment for a humanitarian aid agency on provision of health services to earthquake survivors.
For any of you living in a cave since last year, on October 8th 2005 at 08:50 a category 7.5 earthquake with an epicentre in Pakistan-administered Kashmir struck the region. In Pakistan, India and Afghanistan over 73,000 people lost their lives and up to 3.3 million lost their homes, and now live in tent cities around what is left of major towns, such as Muzaffarabad and Balakot and Srinagar in India.
I spent two weeks around Muzaffarabad, the regional capital of Pakistan-Administered Kashmir, the region referred to locally as Azad (free) Jammu and Kashmir, or AJK. I was also taken by helicopter up to the Neelum valley, north west of Muzaffarabad and close to the disputed line-of-control with Indian-ruled Kashmir – one of most heavily militarised regions in the world, and the site of a major military standoff between these two nuclear powers.
This area, close to the line-of-control (LOC), is normally off limits for foreign visitors, but the pressing need to get assistance to earthquake survivors has meant that military forces on both sides of the LOC have relaxed access regulations sufficiently to allow the aid operation to proceed unhindered. In fact one of the remarkable things about this situation is the role and co-operation of the military on both sides and the vital function their capacity to heavy lift has been in providing emergency relief to the earthquake victims.
I have to admit to a great sense of shock on seeing the extent of the devastation caused by the quake. Huge swathes of the city of Muzaffarabad are in ruins. In particular the Government buildings failed to withstand the shock and most were left derelict, taking with them students, doctors, police officers, prisoners and prison warders alike, clerks and administrators. In fact anyone caught sitting at their desk on the morning of 8th October in Muzaffarabad, was doomed to become a victim. Most poignantly, over 17,000 children were killed in the quake in Muzaffarabad. The city is a children’s graveyard and you can tell it in the silence of the empty spaces; the lost voices, the lack of play, the sadness in parents’ eyes.
Boarding an Mi8 helicopter for the trip into the mountains was an exciting, albeit slightly unnerving, experience. There have been several aid choppers lost in this region since October and with fickle weather, overworked machines and rugged mountain terrain, I could see why. All went well though and as we flew over the city, the multicoloured splashes of the tented camps told their own story of lost homes, lost lives and destruction. A huge raw gash in a mountain overlooking the city was also startling evidence of a whole mountainside that sheared off at the earthquake epicentre, sweeping away homes and blocking and diverting the Neelum River, down below.
I spent a few days at a field hospital that had been set up at 5,500 feet on a mountainside above the valley. While extraordinarily picturesque, with snow capped peaks all round, the landscape was also treacherous and at night we could hear the rumble of landslides, and by day watch the clouds of dust, another section of mountain fell away into the valley.
Earthquake survivors were still coming in for treatment, but four months since the quake, most of the critical trauma injuries have been treated and the medical teams are back to dealing with more routine medical conditions such as illnesses, pregnancy, childbirth and the occasional accident. There are a lot of traumatised people out there though who have lost all that they had put together in their life, and it was heartbreaking to see these tough, mountain people breaking down with the despair of their losses.
I just missed the â€˜cartoonâ€™s protest on the way through Islamabad and was careful not to broach politics when in polite conversation with Pakistanis or Kashmiris. This is still too much of a raw and sensitive subject at the moment and I felt my own opinions would not be understood or accepted too readily by a people with an entirely different cultural mindset. I also thankfully just missed the visit of Dubya, although by the time I left, Islamabad was already crawling with crewcut marines and suspicious looking men in dark suits and shades, talking into their lapels.
I Expect I will be back in a couple of months to get the ball rolling there on our own project work. Watch this space.
Author: Vince Gainey.