Six months in Pakistan quake refugees' life

Before the massive earthquake that laid waste to a swathe of South Asia on October 8 last year, Assia Begum had four children. A few terrifying minutes afterwards, she had nine.

Assia instantly took charge of five children born to her husband’s second wife, Shenaz, who lay crushed to death in the ruins of their shared house in the mountains of Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

Six months later, looking far older than her 39 years, she is still trying to eke out a life for them all in the pair of grubby United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees tents they share in the region’s capital, Muzaffarabad.

“From morning till night, it’s non-stop,” sighs Assia, cradling nine-month-old Hamidali, the youngest of her adoptive children. “But what else could I do? I am their mother now.”

Assia and her family are among more than 200 000 people still living in tent camps after the 7,6-magnitude quake destroyed their homes.
The tremor also killed more than 73 000 people in Pakistan and 1 300 in Indian Kashmir.

Day begins at dawn when she and two of her own daughters rouse themselves from the plastic- and cardboard-covered floor of the tent and start to prepare breakfast on the dirt pathway outside, she says.

Her husband, Mukhtar Ahmed (47), a former police officer, takes the only makeshift bed because his collarbone was dislocated in the quake and remains grossly distended.

Assia cooks on a kerosene stove, one of the only possessions the family could bring with them on the 60km trek from their devastated home village of Lamnian, where hundreds died.

When they arrived in Muzaffarabad amid apocalyptic scenes five days after the quake, they gravitated towards a tent camp near the half-built Nurul sports stadium, one of dozens that sprang up across the city.

“The aid workers put up tents and we just grabbed these two,” she says.

Since the quake, NGOs have built 15 latrines to be shared by the 100 families who live at the camp. An enterprising trader has even set up a cigarette stall.

But an open sewer still rings the camp, exuding a foul stench, and little else has changed, except for the haphazard tarpaulins hanging from the tents to protect them from the elements.

The bitter Himalayan winter—while milder than usual—made conditions almost unbearable.

“Winter was a terrible time, terrible,” mumbles Mukhtar, ruffling the hair of four-year-old Waqar, another son with his late wife.

“Our clothes were wet, the tent was wet, the floor was wet; we had to drain everything just to survive,” adds Assia.

All members of the family developed respiratory infections, while Assia has a persistent problem with her reddened left eye.

The overcrowded conditions also led to an accident when a pot of scalding tea spilled on baby Hamidali’s leg a few weeks ago. Assia pulls up the thin shawl covering him to display a livid scar.

Yet eating and drinking is the only pleasure they have, even if it is a daily diet of rice, bread, vegetable curry and lentils for lunch and supper, with the occasional chicken or mutton dish on special days.

In between cooking meals, Assia tries to keep the squalid tent as clean as possible and washes the family’s meagre selection of clothes under a nearby tap.

Now that spring has come to Kashmir, life in Assia’s tent is more comfortable, although they fear the advent of malarial mosquitoes that summer will bring.

Nevertheless, they are finally planning to return to the snowcapped mountains that loom over Muzaffarabad.

Pakistani authorities fixed March 31 as the deadline for the formal end of rescue operations and the beginning of the rebuilding phase, the first part of which is getting quake refugees back to their homes.

About 4 500 have already left Muzaffarabad, but Assia says they are still waiting for the second 25 000-rupee tranche of government compensation, as well as vital rebuilding materials promised by NGOs.

Some officials say refugees are avoiding the long march home because they have become too reliant on aid.

“You think we like living here?” exclaims Assia, gesticulating with her free hand. “We are used to being in the mountains in a big house. We just want to make sure we can survive when we go back.”—AFP

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