When the Worst Brings out the Best

Here is an article I wrote last year after I had visited some of the affected areas last year. One year on, the memories I have of the people I had met there live on. Here is the article which was not published last year.

A week working at The Sungi head office in Abbotabad was an emotional roller coaster ride and an eye opener. The energy, generosity, and courage demonstrated by the affectees and the relief workers was a bittersweet taste of the reality of life after the earthquake. This is a story of some of the heroes of the earthquake. The people who are still standing when everything around them has fallen.

Kamyla Marvi, who has a background in Public Health, and I were teamed up with a couple of Sungi doctors, Dr. Waseem and Dr. Iftikhar, to set up a Halfway House for patients needing post operative and nursing care.

First up a suitable building was needed. After checking out a couple of homes slightly damaged by the earthquake we found one that was completely intact and quite frankly spanking new. A tireless and resourceful Sungi worker Sajjid took us to this place called Mufti House. Its owners had heard of our project and Landlord Zahid Khan was eager to give us his place no questions asked. He would not hear of taking rent and in fact asked if he could donate money towards the project. No stranger to social work, He, his cousins Reza Khan and social worker Nisar Khan had been distributing tents and food nightly till sehri under the name of their organisation AlRehman Trust. Nisar Khan was also the owner of a nearby private school which had been destroyed by the earthquake. All but one child survived and Nisar Khan believed that he could only thank God by helping others less fortunate than himself. His own wife, a teacher in the school, and children had been pulled out from under the mud, by him. When the earthquake had come his wife had got all the children to gather around her in a part of the school where the roof was less likely to fall. She could not, however, prevent them from being swallowed up by the mud and rubble. Nisar Khan hearing of the disaster had run over to dig them out. Even after pulling his own children out he did not stop to comfort them but threw himself back into the effort to pull out the other children whom he considered to be equal to his own. One of his students recalls hearing voices while she was buried under the sand. She reached out her hand which broke through the surface and grabbed hold of a man’s ankle. Nisar Khan pressed his hands to his cheeks and shook his head while relating the story unable to comprehend the horrors he had seen over the last month. His magnanimity is awe inspiring yet he feels he has not done enough. He was instead impressed by the spirit of generosity of the people of Karachi whom he said have sent so much including so many volunteers who have been willing to inconvenience themselves despite being so far removed from the situation.

Not all school children were as lucky as those in Nisar Khan’s school. In Ghari Habibullah, a young 6th grade Boy called Zohaib took us to see his school from which he had made a narrow escape. A large well built structure around a courtyard. It was like many school in the area very impressive to look at. . . what remained of it anyway. Zohaib appeared to be a light hearted cheerful student when we first met him. Like so many people in the camp a first glance gave no indication of the trauma he had been through. Warm hearted , generous, laughing and smiling their will to live life to the fullest is astounding and inspirational. Their stories however nightmares from hell. Zohaib had run out of his class into the courtyard with his teacher when he heard a loud sound. As he turned round he saw the second floor classroom filled with students come crashing down upon his own class. The very class he had run out of. The class that was filled with all his friends. He still feels afraid coming to the building and it sometimes gives him the shakes. A parent of another survivor says he has handled the situation better than her daughter who cannot bring herself to come anywhere near the school.

Psychological Trauma is another reality in these towns. A man Javed said he was unemployed and in need of a job. He said he wanted to go look for a job in a nearby town but was not able to leave his wife and children alone. His 15 year old daughter Sana, who had been buried under rubble for 4 hours, is a beautiful girl who 3 weeks later still looked scared. She had finally stopped shivering just three days ago but she was still having nightmares which resulted in her waking up screaming “ I’m falling.” She does not go back to sleep till Javed holds her and comforts her. His wife is so traumatised she cannot perform simple tasks like cutting vegetables. Javed cannot leave them alone, so stays in the village. His presence there is appreciated by all, as he is a helpful member of the community. He is full of initiative and capable of hard manual labour and is trying to find ways of improving the tents to prevent flooding in case the rains start. While busy trying to serve others he is not fulfilling his won basic needs. Clearly a once well off man, he has never had to ask for anything and feels shy asking for help even now. He is at a disadvantage against those who are willing to grab and hoard that which is not necessarily theirs. Unemployment is a huge problem. Poeple have lost their shops. A Jeweller, who’s shop has been reduced to rubble, went into recover whatever gold he could from the remains of the shop and distributed it among the villagers.

The mainstay of the community is however a woman called Irum who was once a Sungi worker. A strong and sensible woman with a very pragmatic approach to life Irum contacted Sungi and brought the Relief effort to her village. Irum survived the earthquake when her dog grabbed her shalwar as she ran towards the door. She stopped and turned around to push him away when a beam fell in front of her. Now dirty with matted hair the dog is kept with her in the tent city. Some villagers protested his presence but Irum was firm in the fact that he had saved her life. Irum’s colleagues offered to find her a house in Abbotabad but she refused their offer saying that she and the others were in this together. She has no intention of turning her back on her community. This way she feels she can help -by relaying the community needs to her friends in Sungi. When the trucks filled with goods come It is Irum to actively distributes. She is aware of the number of people in each tent, their ailments and problems. People are continuously entering her tent with demands or just looking for comfort. An elderly lady walks in carrying her 5 month old grandson Saad. A red cheeked boy dressed in woollen hat and sweater he is your picture perfect baby. He is sleeping peacefully in his grandmothers arms having just received an injection. Tetnus vaccinations have been given to all children in the area. A continuous stream of tears run down her face as she is desperately missing her son Jamil, who was killed in Muzzafarabad. Saad wakes up and grabs her face with his two little hands. His face breaks into to a big smile and he gurgles with happiness at the sight of her. She lifts him up and he covers her face with kisses. She is now laughing. The whole tents is laughing at his antics and the conversation changes from one of mourning the dead to the celebration of his life. Saad is apparently a carbon copy of his father. His memory lives on!

Such paradoxical experiences epitomise life in the NWFP today. The beautiful scenic roads to the villages all indicate that heaven is a place on earth. One minute later inside the affected villages and suddenly hell is a place on earth. People sitting inside tents talking on expensive mobile phones have no access to washrooms. Hearing the stories is depressing, there is no doubt about that. But more than that talking to them is uplifting. The human spirit is unbelievable. The will to live. The ability to laugh in the face of death and destruction inspires us all.

Saman Shamsie

  1. #1 by Fahad Punjwani on October 29, 2006 - 10:25 pm

    A very moving essay i must say. Saman, I applaude and appreciate your efforts, going to a place deprived of all the basic facilities to help others is a couregeous and self-less deed. And what is even better is posting this article to make people realise that even though it has been a year,these people still need our help and more aid. Homes, shops, schools and colleges etc, are all destroyed. In many cities, they have vanished from the surface of earth. The people who have lost their families, friends and relatives are going through a tough time.
    I definately agree with the topic, “The worst brings out the best.” Pakistanis have been at many times been titled as selfish, greedy terrorists and friends of terrorists. But after seeing the self-less efforts of people all-over Pakistan, to help their brothers and sisters has proved everyone wrong!!
    Bravo to everyone who has contributed even a rupee to help these people.

  2. #2 by Fahad Punjwani on October 31, 2006 - 11:36 pm

    i didnt know you were a teacher :S sorrry

  3. #3 by Dr. Yasir Qureshi on April 21, 2009 - 7:50 pm

    Dear Sanam,

    writing an article has never been a bad idea, but while living and surviving in Pakistan which has world’s least literacy rate, writing articles is not that “ideal” job. This country needs more than that such as, you ought to contribute yourself in social and volunteer activities instead of teaching in a high profile school and writing an article in air conditioned room. But since your role model turns out to be your sister, Kamila, one can not hope much from you.


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