Socialist Worker

Eyewitnesses to the devastating effects of the Asian earthquake

Issue No. 1982

Respect member Maxine Bowler brought solidarity (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Respect member Maxine Bowler brought solidarity (Pic: Guy Smallman)

A delegation from Sheffield, including several Respect members, recently visited Pakistan and Kashmir, a region of south Asia occupied by India, Pakistan and China.

They took aid for survivors of the earthquake that hit the region in October last year, killing over 70,000 people. Socialist Worker photographer Guy Smallman joined them

Balakot is a small town at the base of a rural valley in north east Pakistan. It used to be one of the most beautiful towns in the area. Now it looks like it has been hit by an atomic bomb.

Before we reached the town itself we drove past miles of tents and refugee facilities, provided by NGOs but under the supervision of the army. One of our first sights is a group of three children foraging for saleable items on a makeshift rubbish dump.

The town was previously dependent on tourism. Its whole economy has been devastated by the earthquake.

It’s not all heartbreak and misery. The resilience of these people is impressive. Children are playing cricket and young men are queuing for a barber who has set up shop in a tent.

As dusk approaches, fires are lit across the ruined town as locals try to keep warm. Even now the people are cold — soon they will be freezing.

As we are leaving we see fires in the hills above the valley. Our guide tells us that they are being lit by people who distrust the army, who are running the refugee camps. They fear if they come down they will lose their land and not be allowed to return.

They remember that in the early 1990s refugees were routinely held in squalid camps against their will.

In 1990 an escalation in the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir led to thousands of Muslim refugees crossing the border into Pakistan.

Many of them settled in the poor but bustling town of Kamsar. The town was located on the epicentre of the earthquake last October.

It was here that 45 year old Naqshah Bib survived for 64 days in the rubble of her home drinking stream water that trickled through the remains of her kitchen.

When the earthquake struck Kamsar the school was midway through its first lesson. Two of the town’s schools fell into the valley below. The death toll among children was painfully high.

Every building has been completely flattened. In places it is impossible to determine where the streets once were.

We were welcomed by the locals and thanked for our interest. Some of the locals want to talk about the town’s history and its future. Others just want to forget it all and talk about the cricket—they are fiercely proud of the sound defeat that Pakistan has inflicted on England.

The delegation also met with Amanullah Khan, chair of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF).

The JKLF is an organisation dedicated to gaining independence for Kashmir. They want to see a secular independent state for the people in the region.

According to Amanullah, the border dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir has made the impact of the earthquake even worse. Troops who should be helping are kept on the border to maintain the balance of power.

People with relatives across the border have no way of knowing if they are dead or alive. Secrecy surrounding militarised areas of the region means that many NGOs are finding it difficult to reach affected areas.

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Sat 7 Jan 2006, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1982
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