Feb 18, 2010

Tahmena shares her experiences of relief work in the Pakistan earthquake with former President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf

It has been almost 4 ½ years since the Oct 5th 2005 earthquake in the northern regions of Pakistan. Recently, we have seen Haiti suffer similar circumstances, that being a poor country under years of civil unrest and political turmoil and then being the epicentre of one of the world’s worst natural disasters.

I want to say that I am so very sorry to hear of the earthquake in Haiti. My heart goes out to all those in Haiti and to Haitians living in Canada who may have family back home. Having worked in earthquake relief directly in Pakistan and teaming up with others to support the May 2008 earthquake relief efforts in China, I can imagine the trauma in the local areas. Being from Pakistan, a country where the emergency response, healthcare and social assistance infrastructure may not be as developed as Canada's, I know that relief efforts can take even a greater toll on the nation as a whole. I understand that the Canadian government has been doing all it can to support Haiti. I encourage everyone around the world to do what you can to help.

We as Pakistanis can share some of the same experiences our Haitian friends are now going through --- when weeks after the quake you still pray that your relatives are still alive somewhere and will be rescued. We can relate to hearing the stories of human triumph that followed; seeing the compassion from your fellow neighbours when no formalized help was possible; and praying that the world is watching and cares, and; indeed for a small moment in history watching the entire world shift all of its media lenses to your tiny nation whom many knew nothing about the day before.

But what lies ahead for Haiti, as the world media attention has now moved on to other crisis and hot topics? Haiti will likely be left with local heroes of NGOs who sometimes have less than those whom they are assisting; likely much social and emotional trauma is still to be addressed and the loss of life yet to be grieved. Those of us who have worked in earthquake relief know this cyle very well, the efforts to first provide food, shelter and then the soft services of dealing with emotional trauma.

Since my last entry on this blog, if one goes to the earthquake hit region in Pakistan now, one will see every house and building with an earthqauke proof tin roof, new schools and healthcare facilities greater than the ones that they replaced and life carrying on as usual. Many local residents would tell you that life is better than pior to the earthquake in terms of facilities. At this point there are hardly any signs that an earthquake even took place, as all the debree has been cleaned up, the dead have been buried and there are no more broken walls and random tents.

It is seldom these days that Pakistan is highlighted in the news for positive reasons and acting in my role as a Pakistani ambassador, I often have to search to find inspiring media stories. Earthquake relief efforts for me are one of those positive aspects that unfortunately we do not hear enough about outside of the Pakistani community or outside of the global disaster relief work community. The Pakistani community, both in and out of Pakistan, was fully united to support the recovery efforts with plane, truck and train loads full of donations, awareness raising, fundraisers around the world, and an overall revived sense of nationhood. Pakistan was highlighted by the UN as an incredible example of relief and recovery and one to be admired and followed by the world.

This was one of the main topics of my discussion with former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in our meeting in his home in London, England. This was my second meeting with him, the first being a brief introduction on airbase grounds during earthquake relief efforts while he was in office. Musharraf was the 10th President of Pakistan and in office from 2001 to 2008, including the 2005 earthquake and 9/11, the world event that put Pakistan permanently on the media’s map. More importantly, I believe that he was one of the strongest leaders the country has seen since being founded in 1947 by Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

His leadership during the earthquake was impressive to many of us locally and abroad. His first decision was to ensure that the army was on the ground and functioning as they had the infrastructure for communication and were prepared for disasters of this enormity. As a foreign Pakistani working on the ground with non-Pakistanis, I can attest to the safety and security that overseas volunteers felt while working there, the comfort felt by the surviviors, and the personal freedom I experienced as a single woman working there. Later on the President made another decision to ban the adopting of Pakistani children by foreigners, which made it impossible for any surviving children to be taken out of the country. I commended this decision given the vulnerability of girl children (and boys for that matter) in a region of the world where children without parents and without documents could very easily be forgotten, fall through the cracks, and be trafficked and abused for various purposes.

Unfortunately, the military leadership of the relief efforts was criticised for corruption where blankets, clothing and food went missing and truckloads of donations were lost according to some donors.

However, as former President Musharraf rightly indicated that you are talking about an impoverished country suffering a major catasrophe for which no one was prepared; telephone lines were jammed; roads were blocked by rubble as well as donor trucks, and; the airports could not sustain the amount of people and aid coming into the country. In such a situation there will be errors, things will go missing, and there is the reality of corruption in the lower levels in countries like Pakistan.

Former President Musharraf correctly indicated that if you go to the areas yourself and if you hear the people discuss the quality of life being better than pre-quake, then you will be witness to where the aid has gone. I agree with his response, as one has to remember we are talking about a country where the majority of people live on less than $2 a day. Like any poor country, there will be corruption within the system because people in general are very desperate to meet the basic requirements of life.

Former President Musharraf was grateful to the international community, not only for the monetary aid but the services, equipment and people who became a part of the relief efforts. I personally felt that this too was one of the most beautiful experiences amidst the destruction, that people who otherwise would never have gone to Pakistan were there, living among the local people, getting a taste of what Pakistanis are all about, and also being the recipients of this extremely kind, gentle, hospitable and generous culture. All of those who supported Pakistan then became pseudo-ambassadors, as they would go back to their family, friends and colleagues to spread the message of how comfortable they felt, how they would never forget Pakistan, how they walked away inspired by the humanity, strength and selflessness of the people, and the many friendships they made with the locals. This was, and still is, a reason to celebrate Pakistan.

It was an absolute honour and privilege to meet with the former President of my country and further to hear his perspectives as the leader of the nation through its most trying times. His charisma was even better in person and I truly could feel his passion and conviction as he sat in the sofa across from me over tea. Mr. Musharraf, thank you again for your continued strong leadership and thank you for your on going faith in the nation and the people.

Written By Tahmena Bokhari

Oct 14, 2007

Two-Year Anniversary Update

October 8th 2005 Pakistan Earthquake
Two-Year Anniversary Update

In this picture: Ms Tahmena Bokhari, Mr Nadeem Shah, Former Prime Minister and Former President of Azad Government of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, Mr. Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan (1991 - 1996), and current Prime Minister of Azad Kashmir Sardar Attique Ahmed Khan (2006 - present). This photograph was taken infront of the Prime Minister House in Islamabad, Pakistan, by the staff of the Prime Minister. It was an honour to meet with the Prime Minister and I was left in admiration of his passion and commitment to the people of Kashmir. Thank you Mr. Prime Minister for your strong leadership in the recovery and re-development of Kashmir.
Pictured below: Jhelum River in Azad Kashmir
I am pleased to say that there has been much progress in the earthquake-hit areas and generally felt among the people. The Government of Pakistan has been actively rebuilding through a temporary branch of the military government called the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA), which is headed by Lieutenant-General Nadeem Ahmad. All construction efforts must be approved by ERRA and meet standards of safety, planning and design set by ERRA. Many local, national and international NGOs and donors have been continuously active and have committed to a long-term plan. I was grateful to have had the opportunity to meet with Lieutenant-General Nadeem Ahmad and to discuss directly with him both hard and soft re-building plans related to education and healthcare development. He was able to explain ERRA's mission, which is to, "Plan, coordinate, monitor and regulate reconstruction & rehabilitation activities in earthquake affected areas, encouraging self reliance via private public partnership and community participation, ensuring financial transparencies." As further discussed below, ERRA's role and operationalizing of the mission has been under criticism by various groups and by the media. 'General Nadeem', as he is commonly known, felt that ERRA staff have been clear on their role and mission and are doing their best to achieve their mission under all circumstances. Above all, I appreciated his courage as a leader and dedication to the ERRA motto of 'building back better', meaning making sure the re-building efforts are enhancing the lives of the impacted communities to a better state than pre-earthquake. Note that unfortunately, due to new sercurity measures cameras were not allowed within the federal government's buildings and no photographs were taken of this meeting.

Most of the international relief agencies completed their "on the ground" support within the first 6-12 months of the earthquake and now mostly local NGOs are continuing the work with local and foreign aid. The Government of Azad Kashmir and specifically the Prime Minister of Azad Kashmir appear positive on the development to date and hopeful for further improvements. Roads, homes, schools, basic health care units (BHUs), and other facilities made with steel-frames and traditional mud-filled wood frames are now being built and utilized. ERRA has committed to ensuring that 6,500 schools, 800 hospitals and health care units, and 4,000 miles of roads are built by their promised 3-yr deadline.

Certainly, this development has not gone with out criticism from various NGOs who felt that their own rebuilding efforts were intertwined with too much 'red tape', bureaucracy and/ or on-going changes to rebuilding requirements that they did not initially financially budget for. Thus, some projects were left half-finished, are taking too long to complete or were abandoned altogether. In addition to the building, programming and associated trained local and national staff are needed to teach in the schools and provide a range of health care services in the BHUs.
Some communities also felt that they did not get their fair or deserving share of financial aid and rebuilding. However, it has been argued by developers that these communities were not as impacted or damaged by the earthquake and it has been debated that enough financial compensation was provided directly to families by the government.

It was reported that 1.7 billion rupees were distributed among the victims in Azad Kashmir and 1.9 billion rupees among the victims in NWFP. However, not everyone received the cash due to, as reported by ERRA, lack of bank
account, national identity card (national i.d. recognized by the government) or some other technical requirement barrier that was crucial in ensuring that the money transferring was a transparent process. Each family was to receive a cheque for 175,000 rupees ($2,800 CAD approx) for reconstruction of their home. However, some residents reported that those who were disbursing the cheques illegally asked them to pay five to ten thousand rupees ($80-160 CAD).

Important to note is that rebuilding appears considerably slower in the three worst hit areas, Muzaffarabad (capital of Azad Kashmir), Balakot (in NWFP), and Bagh (in Azad Kashmir). The master plan for the reconstruction of Bagh, for example, is yet to be unveiled despite us now passing the 2nd anniversary of the disaster.

While I was there, children were coming and going to school, getting ready for Eid and remembering the earthquake and lost loved ones as we came up to the 2-year anniversary on October 8th. Still many are significantly emotionally, mentally and spiritually impacted and traumatized by the devastation of the earthquake. As a social worker, many signs of post-traumatic stress disorder were evident in my interactions and long conversations with men, women and children. Many residents reported having nightmares. Some mentioned that although over time it has become easier, they still find it very difficult to live in peace with a sense of security. Many mentioned that its difficult to talk about the impact of the earthquake on their families with their families. Some mentioned that some of their family members are just not the same, are not the same person anymore or that they just can't talk to them anymore. I feel it is important that we continue to work with people, families and communities on these issues. These "soft" services are still in high demand in these areas and less focus has been placed on these issues so far.

In my overall September-October 2007 experience, people appeared much calmer as compared to when I was there in 2005 and 2006. Being that we were in the middle of the month of Ramadan may have also been a factor in the calmer feeling I myself felt as I interacted with villagers. The people who remain residents of the earthquake-hit areas that I personally visited and worked in gave me the impression that they are at peace with the reconstruction. Some felt that their communities are better now than before the quake.

Although many women had died in the earthquake disproportionately in Azad Kashmir, I saw in the villages that women were preparing food, feeding children and continuing with care-taking of their newly built homes and communities. As I walked through the 'cleaned-up' villages with children running around, I took in the breath-taking views of Neelum and Jhelum rivers and valleys with sights of women washing clothes. As I drove up the steep Kaghan/Kanhar mountains I saw women walking up and down carrying babies, containers and baskets. It was interesting to me that before, during and, after the disaster that the roles women played in the safety, livelihood and daily life of their communities were maintained.

I will share with you a relevant quote from bell hooks' talk in Toronto of 2003 that I have found truth in over and over again in all of my work in various parts of the world: "When a black woman from the inner parts of an American city who lost both her sons to gun violence questioned me on what I could possibly tell her that will hold her up and give her the will to live on; I responded by saying that no one could have such words but, there should be a community around you that will hold you up when you are not able!"

Each and every time I return to these areas, having seen the disaster, the instant reaction from the communities and the healing efforts by the local people with my own eyes, I am significantly reminded of the strength of the collective human spirit and the power of communities to heal us as individuals.

Oct 7, 2006

1-Year Anniverary Reflections

October 8th 2005 Pakistan Earthquake
1st Year Anniversary Reflections

As I traveled over the borders of what used to be one nation, I reflected on the diversity of peoples and the powerful individuals I had the opportunity to work with. The following two quotes came to mind:
"You must be the change you want to see in this world."
- Mohandas Gandhi (1869- 1948), India's "father of the nation".
"There are two powers in the world: one is the sword and the other is the pen. There is a great competition and rivalry between the two. There is a third power stronger than both, that of the women."
- Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948), Founder of Pakistan, from Speech at Islamia College for Women, March 25th 1940.

My telling of this international news focuses on the hope and humanity of the people living in this area and the role that "community" had played in the recovery and healing. "The community" played this role in the disaster because it played a strong role in routine daily life and in the hearts and minds of individuals in the life that they always knew.

Given that this natural disaster did not last more than a few days on mainstream news in the West, donors were apparently fatigued from the Tsunami and Katrina (not to mention funding for the war), this was happening in a part of the world that was highly thought of as the necessary site for the "war on terror", and because the mainstream media coverage of the earthquake did not seem to provide a holistic picture, appropriate reflections of the communities, or any answers to handling "disaster", I felt it was necessary to re-tell the story of the earthquake from my experience and this website is a part of that re-telling. One year later, in memory of the lives lost and in honour of the communities I worked in, I am still telling the same story.

The following are some quick reported-measurements of the Pakistan earthquake. The earthquake hit on Oct 8th 2005 with magnitude of 7.6 at the epicentre of Muzaffarabad (the capital city of Azad Kashmir in Pakistan). It was estimated that 150,000 people died, 19,000 being children in schools and, over 3 million survivors were instantly left homeless. Many of the survivors became permanently disabled or badly injured and a large majority of all families lost their ability to support themselves through their own farm land and/ or lost their businesses. It was estimated that 250,000 farm animals died in their collapsed stone barns and more than 500,000 large animals immediately required medical care, food and shelter from harsh winter. There were about 140 aftershocks over a period of two months that impacted cities as far south as Lahore.

Both North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Azad Kashmir are in a mountainous region in which transport is difficult and dangerous even under normal circumstances, where it gets extremely cold in winters with snowfall, and where there is a diversity of mountain and valley communities, dialects, peoples and traditions. Azad Kashmir is a disputed territory with India and is politically segregated from the rest of Pakistan with its own Prime Minister and government. This is all in a country ranked 134 on the UN's Human Development Index Chart, with a population of 156 million people and with an estimated 74% of its population living on less than $2 USD per day.

Due to the earthquake, 3 million displaced people went into tents and some left for other cities across Pakistan to become beggers or in hopes to find extremely poor-paying informal street or house keeping work. Note also that due to the "war on terror" in neighboring Afghanistan (on west border of two Pakistani provinces NWFP and Balochistan), Pakistan has been taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees who are now living in camps across three provinces (NWFP, Balochistan and Punjab). These refugees have also been searching for poorly-paid informal work or begging and are in need of support from various NGOs.

Here, in the earthquake hit areas, there was no prior formal infrastructure for such disasters, such as 9-1-1 phone call, ambulances, firefighters, equipment to remove rubble, or any prior safety planning. However, somehow, the survivors and local people knew what to do and their communal safety-net was fully functioning. Men and women were helping each other in their areas, there were assembly lines of men removing rubble and large debree with their bare hands, children were being carried and helped by any adult that was around, people were helping each other find their family members, injured women were being removed from under collapsed homes by several community members at a time, people were holding each other, people were praying together and, during meal times families were sharing whatever they had and eating together as survivor communities.

In addition to the response by the local people, within 48hrs several Pakistani NGOs from around the country were present setting up tents for survivors, providing free medical care, and arranging for further support. The national government, government of Azad Kashmir and national NGOs quickly arranged and coordinated international support. One urgent necessity donated by foreign countries within a few days was of helicopters to fly many patients and people out of communities that were now unstable, barricaded by landslides and massive rubble, destroyed roads, and at risk of further damage by aftershocks. Certainly, there were also many issues of coordinating relief efforts (such as transporting extra blankets from one area to areas of shortage by helicopter and flying during daylight hours only), communication challenges among relief organizations, women and children were now more vulnerable to physical harm, and later debates on questions of if, and how, the Government of Pakistan could have responded quicker or more effectively.

Support from the Pakistani diaspora around the globe poured in, almost immediately, to the President's Relief Fund, which was quickly set-up by the government and broadcasted. Nationals and overseas Pakistani communities responded quickly with urgent necessities such as food, tents, warm clothes and blankets lasting over several months. Pakistan International Airline (PIA), the only national and state-owned airline, agreed to bring donated goods into the country free of charge from around the world. Pakistanis living abroad were uniting and raising funds and goods through their networks, in their mosques and community centres, donating directly online to the President's Relief Fund and to national charities (such as Ansar Burney Welfare Trust or the Edhi Foundation) and, giving in the form of zakat, (meaning "charity/donations" being that it was the month of Ramadan & zakat is one of the 5 pillars of Islam). As a Pakistani living in the west, and as many overseas Pakistanis have expressed, I experienced a rare instance of what felt like complete global unity, wherein every person who even remotely identified as Pakistani felt to do something for the people directly impacted by this natural disaster. Of course it cannot go without mention the immediate support from various individuals and communities and certainly international organizations dedicated to global disaster relief and refugee support, such as the United Nation's High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) (tents seen in picture).

All of the above was despite the little attention on the earthquake in western mainstream media compared to the attention on the Tsunami. It is interesting to contrast this local and "third world" national response to the earthquake to that of another natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina, which took place in a first world country (in fact the world superpower) just a few months prior. Why was there such a stark contrast in the response to these two natural disasters? What role (if any) did "community" play in both Hurricane Katrina and the Pakistan Earthquake? Why was there a large difference in western mainstream media coverage time and representation of the Thailand/South-East Asia Tsunami compared to that of the Pakistan/South Asia earthquake? Please feel free to continue to comment and discuss these issues on this site (see link at bottom of this update).

I want to thank you for taking the time to read about the earthquake on this site. Over time, this site has evolved from what was only to be a simple story of my direct work in the camps into a space for critical and creative thinking. This is partly due to many of you who attended my workshops and raised important questions for dialogue.

Nov 23, 2005

Travels to Azad Kashmir & North-West Frontier Province to support earthquake relief efforts

October 8th 2005 Pakistan Earthquake

Picture of the tent I lived in
These entries are from my independent self-funded project of late 2005 in the earthquake-hit regions of Pakistan. On October 8th 2005, at 8:50am (local Pakistan time), an earthquake of 7.6 magnitude hit the northern parts of Pakistan. The epicentre was near Muzaffarabad, the capital city of the disputed territory Azad Kashmir in Pakistan, with the worst-hit city being Balakot in North-West Frontier Province, which was almost completely wiped out. Other cities with severe damage that I directly worked in included Bagh (Azad Kashmir) & Abbottabad (NWFP).


I lived in a local camp, set up by a small local NGO, the Ansar Welfare Society. This camp was located in North-West Frontier Province in Bassian Village, which is just south of Balakot, north of Mansehra, just west of the Kanhar (also commonly known as Kaghan) river and east of the parallel Balakot rd. Seen in this picture is the tent I stayed in. The green tent beside mine was the pharmacy, which housed all of the local and foreign donated medicines. It is estimated that 3 million people went into tents. I must mention that I was received in this area with a great deal of love and appreciation. All of the persons I interacted with were most appreciative of the support from the international community.

My telling of this international news focuses on the hope and humanity of the people living in this area and the role that "the community" had played in the recovery and healing. Here, in the earthquake hit areas, there is no formal infrastructure for such disasters, such as 9-1-1 phone call, ambulances, firefighters, equipment to remove rubble, or any prior safety planning. However, somehow the survivors and local people knew what to do and their communal safety-net was fully functioning.

The camp was at full capacity with 200 adults and 100 children. Most of my work was in this camp and surrounding areas, including Balakot and areas along the Kanhar/Kaghan river.

The camp was guarded by Pakistani military 24hrs a day. This was usual for the smaller NGO camps. The military had also set up their own camps, which were generally larger and more formally organized.

As you can see from some of these photos, life went on as usual in the camp. Women were washing clothes, feeding children, cooking on open fires outside their tents, and children were running around playing. There were temporary schools set-up in these areas as well as schools run by the army. There were also classrooms set-up in some tents at the camp for volunteer teachers to work with the children. Much of this work was around addressing traumatization. Many of the children were orphans and in the care of surviving distant relatives. The men were less visible in the day-to-day activity of the camp. Many would go back to what was left of their homes/communities (if possible to get there and if they were able-bodied) to collect belongings or other things they could sell. Some men had business or jobs in other towns and were not with their families who resided in/near earthquake hit areas. Given this, there were more women and children in some of the camps.

In addition, given the typical routines of the people in some of the particular communities I worked in, the earthquake hit when most women were outside of the home, children were already in school and men were still at home. As a result, many children died in school and many men died in their own beds. In some other communities, most women were in their homes and majority of adult deaths were those of women and most reports agree with this. I visited a particular women's mass grave site of 500 highschool girls in Balakot.

In this last picture of tent life within the camps, these small logs of wood and the clothes drying on the tents are all that this family owns. The food being cooked was donated. Food was donated to the local camp organizers and then distributed among residents, along with clothes, blankets and clean water.


Cuban nurse assisting a quake survivor

Within the camp, there was also a medical clinic, Khanpur Medical Clinic. Cuban and Malaysian medical teams were working in the clinic. The Malaysian doctors were usually in a team of 2 or 3, that rotated weekly from Malaysia, and the Malaysian government had rented a small house for them a few minutes down the main road. It is important to recognize that the Cuban government sent 2, 000 volunteer medical professionals (most compared to all donating countries) to the region and created 30 hospitals complete with emergency medical equipment for a period of 6 months. In this particular camp, there were 21 Cuban doctors living in the camp along with 7 nurses.

The Khanpur Medical Clinic was open to all earthquake survivors and we averaged 400-500 patients per day. The most commonly dispensed medicines were for illnesses resulting from living in the camps such as scabies, diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, fever, cold, flu, infections of the throat, ear, respiratory tract and bladder/urinary tract. In these cases antibiotics for adults and children were a necessary drug. Many of the patients came with severe injuries from the quake such as broken limbs, requiring stitching and casting/recasting. The clinic also provided vitamins, supplements and ultrasounds (at hospital) for expecting mothers and sometimes, based on the stock available, contraceptives.

The patients were sent to the Cuban hospital located just a few walking minutes down the main road for blood tests, X-rays, ultrasounds and surgeries. Patients who were not able to walk were often brought to the clinic in wheelbarrows by neighbours. The clinic was able to utilize a small donated van as an ambulance to transport patients, if possible to do so by road. Residents living higher-up or deeper-in the mountains could not escape by road. In most cases, this meant that supplies were provided via helicopter and that maybe one or two members of the remote area would come and go with medications, food and other items on behalf of everyone living there. As you can imagine, it was challenging in the clinic to diagnose or dispense medicines for patients we have not seen and only based on the descriptions provided by the messengers.

Most of my work in the clinic was health education and translation. The Cuban doctors spoke little English as all education in Cuba is in Spanish. The patients accessing the clinic spoke a variety of languages and dialects, such as Urdu, Kashmiri, Pashto, Sindhi, Balochi and Farsi. Many of the patients were not aware of what antibiotics were or how to take them.

One common issue was "patient non-compliance" (term used in pharmacy) in that patients would take the antibiotics for 2-4 days and if they were seeing an improvement, would then share the rest of the tablets with their relatives or neighbours. Some of the reasons for this were a lack of understanding on how antibiotics work, fear (based on reality of circumstances) of not having enough donated and free-of-charge medicines to go around, and the cultural and communal practice of "sharing". Basic health care, hygiene and preventative measures were some of the topics of my discussions with the patients and local NGOs. We also discussed the importance of considering the impacts of cultural, religious and gender norms on relief strategies and vice-versa. Sustainable programming and support was also a main concern voiced by NGOs because temporary emergency health care was not enough given the preexisting issues as well as the many years of earthquake aftermath and survivorship to come.

The clinic closed at sunset, around 5:00pm, as it was too dark after this time to fly helicopters or to travel. It was extremely cold without the sun, up to minus fourteen degrees celcius. We used gas heaters in the tents while we were awake and sometimes electric heaters throughout the night. We did have electricity on the campsite, but due to periodic load-shedding, we were not able to rely on electrical source of heat.

To learn more about patients in the clinic please see video:
Pakistan 2005 Earthquake Relief Efforts Part 1: Medical Clinic
Tahmena Bokhari
(Urdu, approx 8min)
Please be aware that these videos present graphic images and sensitive subject matter.

Sometimes during the sunsets, the camp staff, doctors, nurses and social workers would go down the mountain, about 1500 metres, to Kanhar/Kaghan river along the Kanhar/Kaghan mountain range. In the far distances we could see the snowcapped mountains of the Himalayas.

This beauty was a high contrast to the work being done in the more populated and more devastated areas such as Balakot. We walked along the main Balakot road as it was too steep for vehicles. Balakot (seen in photos below) was one of the most destroyed cities after the Oct 8th earthquake and very unstable during the countless aftershocks in the following weeks. With the aftershocks lasting two months, reaching various cities in Pakistan, and totaling over 140, the areas became more and more unsafe for survivors and rescue teams. This combined with winter approaching, survivors living in camps with decreasing sanitation and little access to showers and clean water, were now at further risk of infections, diseases, and death. Many survivors were given tents to set-up near their broken homes. Many survivors did not want to leave their land and go into a campsite. Many stayed and dug for wood and metal to sell for money or food (as seen in one of these photos).


Two graves next to broken home and tents

The first picture taken in Balakot, seen here of two graves, was the typical site in Balakot. Amongst the remains of what was a fully functioning and beautiful community, one would see small plots with a broken home, a couple of tents in which survivors were living, and a few graves. The few solid ruins of the homes indicated extravagant exterior designs borrowing from Chinese, Persian and European influences. The graves made here were considered a blessing as many were buried in mass graves. Many survivors were not able to identify the location of their deceased family members.

In reflecting on the strength of the people, what stood out most for me in this experience was the very raw ways in which individual human beings were connected to their "self" and how sure of their realities they were. Many living in the West may not be able to relate to such a connection with self or with community, yet this connection to self can be seen as a main aspect of the highest quality of life. This "connection to self", as I have labeled it, can be categorized under "self-actualization", the highest of Maslow's 5-level "Hierarchy of Needs". I found this highest quality here, among the people, secluded in the mountains of the third world and, hidden behind what the West see as images of terror, tribalism, political conflict, and insurgence.

This very gentle Balakot resident lost all 9 of his family members. He built this small cemetery for them and he now spends his days and nights sitting in its centre. He is seen here on your left smoking from a traditional 'hooka' [water pipe] and on your right, if you click and zoom in, you can see some of the graves.

To learn more about the people who were directly impacted by the earthquake, please see video:
Please be aware that these videos present graphic images and sensitive subject matter.


Girl wearing donated sweater

This girl came to clinic to get medication for herself and her family members who were back in her campsite. The clinic also gave out donated sweaters and jackets when patients presented a need and based on stock.

In working with the children, I realized how much they valued education. The girl-children were very vocal about their aspirations, their dreams, their survivorship and their connection to their communities. Many wanted to know when they would go back to a "proper" school. They often asked about where I was from and some wanted to know exactly where in the world Canada is. Many wanted to know if it was possible to teach them English within the duration of my stay. They had ambitions of becoming teachers and doctors. One girl, who was now orphaned and living with her "mamoo" (mother's brother), said to me as she giggled, "I want to learn English so that I can visit your home one day and help your community" [translated from Urdu]. Another girl said that having seen the help the Cubans provided, she wants to become a doctor and maybe go to Cuba someday.

Some of the surviving parents or guardians of these girl-children also had very high aspirations for their daughters. When I talked with the children, the fathers or mothers sometimes overheard their ambitions and interrupted by saying in appreciation, "Masha Allah", meaning may God will it. The parents discussed with me options for their children around education and the possibility of them studying in different cities. Being that the community was feeling very insecure post-earthquake for various reasons, we also discussed the realities of even worse financial situations ahead for families and the region, concerns for safety given political instability of the region and country, and family-community unity. However, these were not necessarily seen as definite barriers to education of the girl-child, but rather concerns to be addressed given the contexts in which they live.

This little girl introduced herself to me quite formally as "Zubeda Bebe". Zubeda Bebe demonstrated boldness and leadership. She would announce my entry into the camp site to all the other kids. She knew I would be bringing goodies such as toys or markers and paper. She was also very curious as to where these items came from but told the other kids that it was impolite to ask such things.

The children loved the camera and loved to pose.

This little girl (looking at the medications) was very shy. Her father mentioned that before the quake, she was very talkative. She hardly spoke a word as she waited with her father for their turn in the clinic. Sometimes patients waited for over 2hrs depending on how busy the clinic was that day.

Working with the children survivors was a source of great learning. Their resilience in the face of this tragedy reminded me of the nature of the human spirit to flourish. Having buried the woman who raised me a week before my trip to this region and questioning my decision to continue with this project, the children taught me that it was some higher power that brought me back to the country in which I was raised, for my own healing journey. I am truly blessed to have been touched by these children and all the humanitarians that lead me to this path.

To learn more about the children from the children directly,
please see video:
Pakistan 2005 Earthquake Relief Efforts Part 2: The Children
Tahmena Bokhari
(Urdu, approx 15min)

Please be aware that these videos present graphic images and sensitive subject matter.


As our helicopter landed on this tiny helipad in Bagh, the children of this mountain area (where there is a large military base) came running out of the steep rocky edges. They were fascinated by planes and told us stories of different planes and people that have landed there. Ours was a Swiss helicopter donated to the Pakistani government and flown by two Italian pilots. It was being used by the military to transport food and supplies to areas that could not be reached by road. The donated helicopters that I saw from various countries, including Canada, were most importantly used to quickly and safely transport injured or sick residents to clinics or hospitals.

Despite the ugliness of death and destruction, the area was very beautiful as seen from the sky. As we traveled through the region via helicopter, I thought to myself that this landscape was one of the most breathtaking I had ever seen in my life.

If you click on these photos, you can see them enlarged and then you can zoom in once. If you do so, you will see tiny white dots on the mountains. Some of these dots are homes. From the ground and with only the naked eye, one would only know that there were communities so high-up along these mountains by tiny yellow glowing dots at night. During the load-shedding, some homes on the mountains would have a fire lit.

This is the Kanhar/Kaghan river that runs parallel to Balakot Rd.

On the helicopter!

I am grateful to Maqbool Bhatti and the team at the Ansar Welfare Society for sharing their knowledge and space with me. Above all, I know that I can never repay the individuals I met along my journey who have forever changed my life.