Magazine article UN Chronicle

'It Is Enough for Us to Survive, for Now'

Magazine article UN Chronicle

'It Is Enough for Us to Survive, for Now'

Article excerpt

WALKING THROUGH THE REMAINS of Balakot city, located 136 miles north of the capital of Islamabad in Pakistan, one is constantly reminded of what happened here nearly a year ago. A 7.6 magnitude earthquake ripped through this once prosperous city and neighbouring Kashmir.

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On 8 October 2005, the unthinkable occurred with no warning: houses on hillsides within the city literally crumbled and slid down the hill, one on top of the other, while remote villages in the mountains suffered heavy losses. Houses made of stone and mud with timber roofs collapsed from the weight, and entire families were buried. According to government estimates, over 70,000 people died and more than 3.5 million in the region were left homeless. Piles of broken concrete and buildings that were once restaurants, businesses and homes are reminders of that fateful day. Structural shells stand as a testament that this was once a thriving city and home to over 300,000 people.

Ten months later, life went on amid the rubble. People walked through the ruins on their way to work or to the market. Children in clean, pressed uniforms went in groups to tent schools, which were set up by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and other local organizations. Life indeed goes on for these distressed people, but the challenges are great, as lack of work, inadequate shelter and a doubtful future place a great burden on survivors.

Habitat for Humanity (HFH) Pakistan has been assisting the needy with transitional shelters to replace the tents, which were inadequate and unable to withstand the harsh weather conditions. Since starting the project in mid-February 2006, the Habitat Resource Center (HRC) assembled over 400 shelters, made of four iron pipes with seven corrugated steel sheets. Each shelter is insulated with foam sheeting that provides warmth against the cold and wind.

The need for permanent housing is evident everywhere, from the lowland areas of Balakot to the remote hilltop villages high above the city. As I walked through the community with three HFH field coordinators immediately following a heavy rainstorm, people began to emerge from their tents, their clothes wet from the soggy shelters damaged by the harsh weather conditions. A small child came out carrying a metal bucket filled with brackish water, dumped it at the side, and then went back inside the tent. HRC staff coordinator Shoaib Malik stopped to speak to a group of men, explaining that HFH would provide them shelter if they needed one or if their tents were in poor condition. Within a matter of minutes, he was surrounded by more than 15 men, who said their tents were no longer safe for their families and then handed their identification cards to Shoaib.

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We walked through the area, looking inside the tents and assessing the needs; nearly all were in dire need of replacement. As we began to leave, a tall teenage boy approached Shoaib, speaking softly to him: "Sir, could you please come to where my family lives? My name is Zakir (see photo above) and I have five brothers and three sisters. Our family is in great need of a new shelter. If you feel that we really need one, then please help us. If you don't agree with me, then it is okay". Shoaib nodded and we followed the boy.

A two-year-old girl carrying a bowl of beans stood in the pathway as we approached. When she spotted us, she ran over to where her mother was sitting and hid, poking her head out curiously. A young boy in a green long-sleeved shirt came up to me as I took some photos, moving his face so close to my lens that I had to step back. He touched my hand, silently watching, and as I looked at his shirt I saw one sleeve hanging by his side--he had no arm. He did not speak, but only stared, until one of his brothers took hold of his shoulder from behind and pulled him away. Looking around the two tents where this family lived, I could not help but realize that they needed more than just a shelter. …

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