Sajjad Zaidi's Blog

Monday 31st October 2005

Livelihoods of quake survivors

As this BBC article states, the next challenge, after the rescue and relief operation, will be providing a means of earning for survivors of the earthquake. Most of the area is mountainous and unable to support large scale agriculture or industry and the political situation in Kashmir and its surroundings hasn't quite helped tourism.

It is small orchards, poultry farms etc. that are the main source of income for most villages and many of these have disappeared as a result of landslides or collapses. Another hurdle is that a large number of women who have lost the males of the family, would be reluctant to go out to find work.

Short of evacuating everyone in the whole region, a Herculean task in itself and one which will require creation of hundreds of thousands if not millions of jobs in the rest of the country, we have to come up with long-term solutions. One idea we discussed was setting up micro-industries in the people's homes (or what's left of them) that can at least help feed the household. Supplying sewing machines and raw material to the women for example. More ideas welcome.

Posted at 08:35am PKT Comments(5) |

Saturday 29th October 2005

Help needed in Saadpur village near Neelum river

I got this message from Aamir recently which I thought I should pass on. Saadpur village, with about 50-70 homes and a population of 600-900, about 300 of which are children, needs help. It is situated near the Neelum river that I mentioned earlier and is currently inaccessable by road. Someone has to go there physically and find a way to deliver food, tents and medical assistance. With winter coming, we only have a short time to save as many lives as possible so this is urgent.

Posted at 05:33am PKT Comments |

Thursday 27th October 2005

Letters to Indian and Pakistani People

Returning to non-earthquake blogging for a while, here are some interesting posts I found. This is a humorous letter to Pakistani people from Indian bloggers, on
"We like Pakistani people. And we dont just mean Adnan Sami, Jal or Strings ? we mean regular Pakistani folks. .... We've grown up seeing the 'whole' of Jammu and Kashmir as a part of India in our textbooks. But then, so have you."

Here is a reply that KO posted:
"it's the 21st century and still too many in the subcontinent are struggling with their feelings for their neighbouring countries. How does one dislike an entire nation, especially when both countries were one just a short while ago?"

Posted at 17:50pm PKT Comments(1) |

Wednesday 26th October 2005

Effect of the earthquake on Islamabad

Though virtually all the damage done by the 8th October earthquake was in the north of Pakistan, around the Kashmir region, things have certainly changed for the capital. Only a single apartment block collapsed in Islamabad and the death toll was a few dozen, but few buildings have been left without cracks or other structural damage.

People have started moving out of high-rise apartments into houses and businesses are also considering doing the same. A friend of mine, who runs a software company in the high-tech Evacuee Trust Complex, hasn't even stepped into his office since the quake. He's now looking to sell the office and shift operations to a rented house.

This shifting has caused the already inflated property prices to skyrocket. A house portion another friend wanted to rent was going for about Rs.30K (~USD 500) per month before the quake. Now the demand is over Rs.36K and is likely to increase if he doesn't take it now. That's already an increase of 20 percent.

The earthquake, coupled with the holy month of Ramadan, has also changed people's attitudes about religion and their way of life. Islamabadians were becoming somewhat hedonistic, caught up in their hectic lives and not caring much about anything else. Now, they seem to have shifted to a sober, more charitable pace. If not for the unfortunate people further north, they are certainly concerned about their own future. A lot of my friends now make less fun of each other and have decided to give up anything that may be morally degrading or harmful, which includes everything from smoking to listening to music, and becoming more regular in their daily prayers.

My prediction is that very soon, people will start moving to other cities (few citizens have their roots in Islamabad anyway) after getting tired of the aftershocks. This may provide a much-needed cooling down of property and other prices. Once things seem more stable geologically, they'll return and everything will get back to the way it was earlier, perhaps just before the next big earthquake. Such is the way the masses think.

Posted at 09:17am PKT Comments |

Lava flow rumors

Rumors of lava flow and formation of a volcano in the remote Aalai valley of Pakistan are on the rise, though the only thing I found on reliable news sites was this Yahoo! News article:;_ylt=AnhuZjH3.Xej4XuwGo6maRes0NUE;_ylu=X3oDMTA3b3JuZGZhBHNlYwM3MjE-
"Pakistan's army flew a team of geologists to an isolated northwestern valley Tuesday to investigate reports by anxious villagers of possible volcanic activity in the quake-shattered Himalayan foothills..."

According to the following diagram, Pakistan is nowhere near a volcanically active area so the chances of a volcano forming are very small.

Map showing distribution of some of the Earth's 500 active volcanoes

The news on TV shows footage of smoking hills and whole mountains that have shifted their place. It is speculated that this is due to trapped gases escaping after the quakes and not volcanic activity. Let's wait and see.

Aftershocks are continuing after subsiding for a few days, though are less frequent and of a higher magnitude (upto 6.0 on the Richter scale). This seems normal from a scientific point of view, though these aftershocks, combined with the volcano rumors is enough to cause more panic among the general populace.

Posted at 01:07am PKT Comments |

Monday 24th October 2005

What I learned

Muslims consider natural disasters, such as earthquakes, as an act of God, a show of anger, punishment for the degradation of not just an individual, but society as a whole. This is why it is so amazing that those directly affected by the calamity could act in such an inhuman way.

You can guess how we felt after seeing what was happening to truckloads of aid coming in. The trucks were stopped in the city (if they managed to get that far) by the locals who have only marginally been affected. Food, tents and the best pieces of clothing and blankets disappeared immediately while the rest was left to rot on the city streets. I even saw people using the clothing as fuel for their bonfires. People are piling up on supplies that they don't even need and what other people's lives depend upon. Yet these are just the small thieves and looters. The bigger criminals are those who hold some amount of power. Officials, politicians, even aid agency workers. A police/army raid on a single house in Muzaffarabad uncovered about 170 hoarded tents while about 90 tents were found in another house. A large portion of blankets and medical supplies that are unloaded, disappear while only a token amount is left visible.

It looks like any aid that arrives in the usual way will just go to feed these reptiles. The immediate need is to get all this to the areas unreacheable by road or even air. The number of helicopters are limited and their priority, rightfully so, is transporting the badly injured. And even they aren't much use in many mountainous areas such as the Kamsar camp we visited. Airdrops aren't much use either since a lot of the dropped material end up in the rivers and with people attempting to catch goods, such as tents that two grown men have trouble lifting, can be deadly.

What can be done now? Organize a small team of volunteers, that is mainly composed of doctors and medics, hike to the troubled areas with whatever you can carry and help the people directly. Hire mules or a local guide, if possible. Not the most efficient way, but at least some lives are actually saved this way. If that isn't possible, get in touch directly with the foreign Red Crescent/Red Cross teams that are already doing an excellent job and require all assistance possible. It is also advisable to coordinate with the army. Though the media has criticised it harshly and unjustly, the situation would have been much worse without it.

Once that is done, there is a need to relocate hundreds of thousands of people and provide them with a source of income. The hills around Muzaffarabad are highly unstable and composed mostly of mud or soft rock that easily breaks or slides. Extensive logging has further made it dangerous. We noticed that cracks in roads are gradually widening and on our return, narrowly escaped a fresh mudslide, small as it was. Before rebuilding schools and other buildings, we have to consider if it is worth the risk.

Soft Rock Widening Crack Fresh Mudslide

Posted at 21:10pm PKT Comments(186) |

Friday 21st October 2005

Monday 17th October: The great people of Kamsar camp

Now I come to the most rewarding and interesting part of my whole journey. The first village in the Neelum valley, that isn't yet accessible by road, is Kamsar. It is where refugees from Occupied Kashmir (Indian Administered Kashmir) have lived since the 1990s. As we later realized, the contrast between this group of amazing people and the thugs we encountered elsewhere was astonishing.

Kamsar camp Kamsar camp

We got news that no medical teams had reached this village yet and that was what made us choose to go there. After a hike of about 45 minutes, Asif and I got there, while the other three lagged a long way behind, somewhere out of sight. Imtiaz, a young man in his 20s, greeted us and offered all the help he could muster. When no suitable place to setup camp could be found, he emptied his own tent. We learned that the village elder was his brother and used to teach in the local school, but was crushed to death when it collapsed during the earthquake. He left behind this cute child who Imtiaz now looks after.

The late elder's daughter Imtiaz

Once our team was ready, we asked Imtiaz to start bringing in the injured. Most wounds were inflicted when the people tried to run away from landslides and were concentrated on their feet and legs. The good part was that most had already started to heal. Irshad and I took care of basic wounds and dressing, while the rest handled more severe cases.

The whole village seemed to have suffered very badly from the earthquake and it was obvious that they hardly had anything left in terms of provisions or belongings, yet they did whatever they could to make us feel at home. Instead of complaints or demands, all we got were blessings and good wishes. All this and getting a chance to treat so many people, from small children to women and the aged, was such a great experience that it made me regret having chosen my current line of work.

After a while, three of us went to treat those with serious injuries who could not leave their beds or tents. On the way, I noticed freshly dug graves, next to what used to be the main buildings in the village. These had all collapsed and appeared to have sunk into the hillside. But the now all too familiar odor of death was still strong, indicating still-trapped bodies. We learned from Imtiaz that there used to be just over 100 families here. They have already buried about 150 dead while the majority remain under the rubble.

Collapsed buildings in Kamsar Collapsed buildings in Kamsar Collapsed buildings in Kamsar Collapsed buildings in Kamsar

All families seemed to have suffered heavy losses. The girl in this photo injured her knee when her school collapsed, but her sister wasn't even lucky enough to survive. Even the baby had to have her foot bandaged.

Treated family

Now for the thing that really touched us. We were about to leave when we noticed a truck near the entrance to the village. Upon asking, Imtiaz said it was carrying food supplies somewhere when the quake struck. The driver abandoned it right there and disappeared. These people's belief in "amanat" (something left for safe-keeping) is so strong, that instead of using the supplies themselves, these people have been guarding the truck against looters until the rightful owner returns.

Abandoned truck

Another village further ahead needed assistance, but the locals warned us that it would be almost impossible for someone unfamiliar with the terrain to reach it alive. And even if we had made it, it would have been too late to return to the city, so we started to head back just before sunset.

More information on the refugees of Kamsar can be found here:

Posted at 17:17pm PKT Comments(1) |

Volunteer Team from Karachi

Until this trip, my only doctor friend was Furqan. Now, I had a chance to bond with other, very capable doctors, in addition to learning a lot in this area. It was well worth spending time with the team of volunteer doctors from Karachi. They did an excellent job and at the same time, kept their own as well as everyone else's spirits high. Their chef, Irshad, was especially good at the latter. This chubby guy, with the resemblance of a Genie, provided much needed comic relief at such a time and his innocent remarks never failed to make everyone laugh or smile.

Irshad the friendly Jinn

I promised my new friends that I would send them the photos I took, though since most images were taken while moving or in strange circumstances, they didn't come up very clear. I did the best I could to improve the color and sharpness (using Gimp) though you can't much improve something that wasn't there in the first place. Here they are:

Dr. Ali and Rizwan Rizwan and Dr. Farhan Dr. Asif Rizvi Mazhar Mazhar

Neelum Valley:

Asif, Dr. Farhan, Dr. Abid and Irshad Asif, Dr. Farhan, Dr. Abid and Irshad Asif, Dr. Farhan, Dr. Abid and Sajjad (that's me)

On our return to Islamabad, we stopped at the site of the collapsed Margalla Towers apartment block.

In front of Margalla Towers in Islamabad In front of Margalla Towers in Islamabad In front of Margalla Towers in Islamabad

Oh, and many thanks to Adeela Aslam for lending me the camera. My writing would have been pretty dull without any photos.

Posted at 12:06pm PKT Comments(36) |

Monday 17th October: Neelum - The valley of death

Monday, instead of waiting around, I joined the Karachi team to go and provide medical aid to places where it wasn't yet available. These guys had tried to hike to a village in the Neelum valley the day before, but had to turn back due to inhospitable terrain.

In two ambulances, we drove upto "Nisar Camp", a few kilometers outside Muzaffarabad, towards the Neelum valley. Here, a tent was already setup where some of these doctors had been treating patients for a few days. We took out some of the medical supplies we had brought and put them in boxes and bags that we could carry.

Asif Baloch Dr. Farhan and Dr. Abid resting Irshad in the valley Sajjad Zaidi, that's me

Five of us, Dr. Farhan, Dr. Abid, Asif, Irshad and myself, set out towards a village further upstream from us, carrying whatever we could. The road was only open until a kilometer or two ahead, after which landslides had wiped them off the face of the mountains. The army workers were constantly busy clearing the existing path and making a new one where the damage was great, but they could only cover a very short distance per day.

Crushed Mountains Where the river was blocked Fallen Truck Upside down Truck Jeep

It was here in the Neelum valley that the full fury of the quake could be seen and felt. Whole mountains seemed to be cut in half with a gigantic knife, exposing their pale rocky flesh. The resulting debris was deposited at the botom in piles huge enough to engulf whole villages. The initial landslides were so large that the flow of the river was blocked for almost six hours. Countless trucks, jeeps and vehicles could be seen half buried in the landslides or twisted into an almost unrecognizable shape. The only bridge to the other side, a suspension bridge, was in the water, though by the time we returned, the army had completed fixing a rope bridge.

Neelum Valley Neelum Valley

We saw it just about the place where the road vanished into crushed rock. People were walking over it as if it was part of the road. The stench of rotting flesh was all over Muzaffarabad, but here it had an image. It had been there for over a week so must be festering with all types of diseases, yet when we pointed it out to the passersby, instead of avoiding it, they started to touch it. The body was half buried into the road with only the legs exposed. I couldn't get a shot of it at the time and thought that I would do it on our return, but by that time it, and the others the army had recovered, had already been cleared.

From that point on, we had to find our own way through the unstable rocks, debris and water. The valley is actually quite beautiful with streams, just clear white lines from afar, bringing spring water down to the river. There were even palm trees here, something I didn't expect at such a cold place.

Spring Water Palm Trees Spring Water

But despite the beauty, the river is a grave to thousands of people who perished in the earthquake when whole villages simply fell into it and disappeared. Those that survived the quake, have constantly been under threat from landslides that still have not entirely stopped.

Posted at 10:54am PKT Comments(41) |

Thursday 20th October 2005

Sunday 16th October: Helicopter drop that never happened

Before I arrived in Muzaffarabad, I had thought of staying there for two days and returning on Sunday night. After getting there, I wished I could have stayed for weeks since as harsh as the conditions were, it was gratifying work. I felt better about everything, the thought of comforts that I once believed I couldn't live without, vanished and I felt a strength in me that I never knew existed.

The second day, it was decided that the volunteers would follow the doctors to remote areas where help was needed. They would have to hike up the mountains over unstable terrain, carrying heavy load, and save enough energy to get back. Two of the volunteers would be airlifted by chopper to very remote areas and stay there for an unspecified number of days. I was one of the few that qualified (sleeping bag and good hiking boots) so immediately got my bag ready and joined Ahmed, a student of MAJU in waiting for the call.

Unfortunately, the weather was so bad that only a couple of helis flew and that too near the evening. One of them was a German chopper that just arrived. At least I got to meet the pilots. Most of the afternoon was spent getting the Red Crescent offices in order, after the Brigadier left us to clean up the mess.

Bad Weather

Another fleet of trucks carrying flour arrived during the day and Ahmed and I were asked to have them unloaded at a nearby guest house that was now serving as a warehouse. The moment we got there, people seeking aid started pouring in. We made the best of the situation and got all the two dozen or so to help in unloading the trucks. Once this process was running smoothly, we left an elder in-charge of unloading the rest of the trucks and returned to the office.

Later in the day, a Turkish team of Red Crescent workers arrived and Aamir had me assigned full-time to be their interpreter and liaison person, in addition to Haseeb, a dedicated and friendly Muzaffarabad local. Though I was asked to pack my bags and soon left with the team, somehow, I ended up back at the office and was kept from going with them again.

Despite Aamir's best efforts, I never got to do what I was really good at. I could have been of good use to the foreign teams, especially the one from Japan, yet none of the people running the show cared. A day that went to waste.

Posted at 14:09pm PKT Comments(10) |

Saturday 15th October: Food Distribution

The second truck of aid goods had already been unloaded in a tent at the Belgian hospital. It consisted mostly of plastic bags, packed with portions of food, drink and medicines. Since the requirement was to use these separately, I got a few army personnel nearby to help in sorting the items. The medical supplies were sent to the main part of the hospital while we sorted the food and drinks according to what could last the longest without spoiling. Fresh bread, nan and dates would go first. Milk cartons, juices, rice etc. could be kept longer.

Shams, a local who works in Islamabad's "Melody Food Park", had a house just across the road from the hospital. He lost family members when it collapsed, yet he seemed at peace and helped us in whatever way he could. Since most of us volunteers were not fasting (fasting is not allowed while travelling over a certain distance in a day, according to the Shia faith, but it was also difficult to fast for the rest in the circumstances we were in), he had lunch cooked for us, a luxury we didn't expect to enjoy till we returned. He also identified the families that really deserved help since here, most people knew everyone else who lived closeby.

Collapsed Wooden House Collapsed Wooden House

Once everything was ready, we asked an armed soldier to stand guard and started the distribution. Women, children and the elderly would be given preference. The rest would come later, though we soon realized how mistaken we were. At first, things seemed to be going very smoothly. Then we realized people would collect their share, ask for a couple more things as though it was a shop and they were the customers, drop them off somewhere out of sight and get in line again. And the culprits were almost all women and elderly. Even worse, families would set up "camp" nearby and send an army of children to collect rations and dump them in their camp. Passersby, already carrying sacks of aid from elsewhere, would hide them behind a tree or a bush and get in line. In a lot of cases, they ended up with more than they could carry.

Food Distribution

Seeing what was happening, we tightened up the rules. Everyone, whether man, woman or child, would have a red X marked on their hand with a permanent marker after receiving their share. I myself got in front of the line to keep people from pushing and identify the rascals that were hoarding the goods. It was like trying to control kindergarten kids. Though it was infuriating to see people try to rub off the X as soon as they left, this method seemed to work very well. The army officers commended us and said that it was the best-managed distribution they had seen yet. After over an hour, we had distributed only about half of the rations and without any serious mishap.

Posted at 13:07pm PKT Comments(72) |

Saturday 15th October: The Belgian Hospital

The hospital consisted of a number of spacious tents with different sections for checkups, treatment and for looking after serious patients. Most of the doctors were Belgian and here on a voluntary basis for a week or so. They had enough expertise and equipment to treat most serious cases on the spot, though those requiring serious surgery were usually airlifted by helicopter to the city or Islamabad. The doctors planned to add a surgery section on the other side of the road, though I didn't return to see if it had been done.

A number of seriously injured people were brought in, mostly on beds carried by family members or neighbours for hours or even days, though the utter insensitivity and selfishness shown by the rest was disgraceful. People held up the line just because of a cold or a sore throat. One man was previously given a pill to treat his backache. He now returned because a mild stomachache, side-effect of the pill, had taken its place. At one point, the head doctor got so fed-up that he considered wrapping it all up and returning home.

The worst incident was of an 8-month pregnant woman, suffering from internal bleeding, who waited so long for her turn that by the time the doctors managed to get rid of the morons in front, she was nowhere to be found. It was only after I returned to Islamabad that I learned that a woman with the same symptoms was flown in and treated at PIMS. The baby is alright, though the mother has broken ribs and is in a critical condition. I hope that it is the same woman and that she gets well.

Things only improved after we asked soldiers to assist in crowd control and asked anyone who wasn't seriously injured to leave. Soon, a man with a skull fracture, a broken jaw and broken neck was carried in. After administering first-aid, the doctors had him sent to to the city hospital. Hope he lives.

Posted at 05:58am PKT Comments |

Saturday 15th October: Tent Distribution

The rain woke me up at daybreak after a brief nap and we soon started getting ready for our first task: distributing the relief goods that we had brought. The aid trucks and team of volunteers were divided into two, one for the Neelum valley and the other, which I was in, for the Jhelum valley. We were given some pointers on how to distribute the goods without letting things get out of control. In the pouring rain, I crawled into a truck full of tents, pick-axes and shovels. The only room was on top of the tents, next to the axes, an uncomfortable, dangerous place to be. Ahsan, a volunteer from Lahore was with me. The cover over the truck provided some protection from the rain, but left little head room for us.

Pick axes My left foot

A few kilometers outside the city, we stopped at a distribution point next to the river where a group of soldiers was posted. Aamir left me in-charge of tent distribution and coordination with the soldiers and went ahead with an army officer to survey the conditions further upstream. Initially, the distribution went pretty well. The army kept things under control and already had an effective system. Soldiers would hike up to the villages and survey the damage. Those that truly required aid were issued a stamped slip and asked to collect the goods from where we had stopped.

A stream of suspicious people without slips kept coming to me begging for tents and in certain cases, I had to ask the soldiers to forcefully have them removed. Once the quota of tents was reached, it was time to move ahead to the next point, but suddenly, things started to get out of control. Despite the presence of armed army personnel, the crowd started to turn into an angry mob, swearing and cursing at me, since I seemed to have the final say about the tents. If we hadn't got out of there in time, I might not have been here, perfectly ok and writing about it. At the next point, the army officer in-charge advised us not to stop (the mob was already out of control here) so we quickly moved ahead.

Escape from the mob Landslide

A Belgian group of doctors had set up a make-shift hospital a few kilometers ahead and this is where I caught up with Aamir. The rest of the tents I sent ahead with a soldier and volunteers to be distributed at the final post before the road became unusable.

Posted at 04:34am PKT Comments |

Saturday 15th October: Muzaffarabad - City of the Dead

The city of Muzaffarabad, capital of Azad Kashmir ("Free" or Pakistani administered Kashmir), is located at the junction of two rivers. The Neelum and the Jhelum join here to form the proper Jhelum, a major tributary of the Indus.

River Jhelum

It is beautifully spread out over the hills and must have presented a scenic view before the quake. Now, the hills are dotted with white or pale patches where the earthquake ripped apart rock and soil and deposited the ground up remains at the bottom in the form of landslides.

Muzaffarabad Hills Muzaffarabad Hills Muzaffarabad Hills Landslide

The up-scale areas have mostly gone undamaged. The court building still stands and is home to apparatus brought in by medical teams to treat the casualties. Almost all of the roads in and around the city are cracked.

Muzaffarabad Court Cracked Road Cracked Road

The inner city is filled with collapsed buildings, crushed cars and dead bodies which emit the distinct stench of rotting flesh. Though these are being recovered for proper burial, it will take a while to get the estimated thousands that still lie under the rubble.

Collapsed Building Collapsed Building Collapsed Building Collapsed Hotel Collapsed Hotel

The military hospital also collapsed and the site is now being used by the French Red Cross team.

Collapsed Hospital Building French Camp French Camp

Posted at 03:43am PKT Comments |

Saturday 15th October: Sleeping in the open

The night we arrived in Muzaffarabad, there was a big aftershock which caused everyone to camp outside the main structure. The tents were already full by the time we got there, so we had to find another place to sleep. Waqas had been kind enough to lend me a sleeping bag before I left Islamabad, so I unrolled it on the grass, out in the cold open and slid in. Not at all comfortable, considering that the bag didn't offer any protection from the cold and that I hadn't brought any blankets, but it was more than enough after the bumpy truck ride. The rest had no option but to risk sleeping indoors or in the porch.

Posted at 01:38am PKT Comments |

Foreign and Local Red Crescent/Red Cross

The Pakistan Red Crescent Society (PRCS) office in Muzaffarabad is located inside a house in a well-off area where the construction is better and where the damage was mostly limited to cracks in the roads and structures and a few toppled boundary walls. The two-storey building is shared by foreign teams of Red Cross/Red Crescent workers who have setup their office on the second floor.

Though in theory, there should not be any difference between the two groups (local and foreign workers), they were both operating independant of each other. It was shamefully obvious how much more organized and better equipped the foreign teams are. The work they are doing is excellent and they really should be applauded.

Words can't describe the frustration and anger I feel at how useless, unorganized and corrupt the local body is, even at a time like this. It wasn't just the fact that they weren't doing anything themselves. Nor that they failed to facilitate the volunteers, such as myself, properly. It was that they were preventing those that came to help from making full use of their skills. Skilled doctors and medics, that had come from as far away as Karachi on a voluntary basis, were left to treat such ailments as minor colds and coughs when they should have been given the chance to save lives. Though I went as an interpreter, I and others were usually kept away from the foreign teams and treated like hired labour. Let me say that most of us had no issues in helping out with whatever was required, but if it meant that our primary expertise were being totally wasted, especially where human lives were concerned, it is a crime that deserves severe punishment and condemnation.

Though I plan to return to Muzaffarabad, I will have nothing whatsoever to do with any such agency. My best bet is to directly help the armed forces, foreign Red Cross/Red Crescent teams or gather a team of my own. The other volunteers, that had come from all over Pakistan at their own expense, have similar feelings.

Posted at 00:33am PKT Comments(1) |

Wednesday 19th October 2005

Friday 14th October: The Red Crescent Convoy

Friday morning, I got a call from the Pakistan Red Crescent Society. They were sending about eleven aid trucks to the earthquake-hit areas and since I had volunteered to go (as an interpreter for the foreign teams coming in), they asked me to get there by about 1pm. I was asked to bring my own provisions, a tent and medications etc. After I got there, I realized that it was a big media fiasco and that the Information Minister was expected to arrive before we left. There was also a large group of volunteer students who were going.

Red Crescent HQ

There were going to be three convoys: one for the Mansehra region, another for the Rawalakot region and the largest, consisting of 4 trucks, for Muzaffarabad. When they asked me where I wanted to go I said, "wherever I'm needed more", so they put my name down for Muzaffarabad. There were a total of eleven people in our group (not including the truck drivers). Nine students from Muhammad Ali Jinnah University, Islamabad, myself and our team lead. That was Aamir, a banker from Karachi, here on a voluntary basis, and as I later understood, one of the greatest people I have ever met.

Aamir Khan

The Minister, Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed, arrived about 2 hours late, had a photo session, said a few words and disappeared without a sign. No encouraging words to the young volunteers, no good wishes, not even a handshake. What a waste of time.

We finally managed to leave at about 4pm. These trucks can't go very fast when fully loaded so the ride was long, hard and bumpy. The dangers were also apparent the closer we got to the earthquake zone. Though signs of real destruction only started to appear close to Muzaffarabad, we passed a number of landslides. I saw rocks about as big as our truck, lying on the road. Whole sections of road had disappeared in many places and it was only thanks to the army that traffic was still getting through. It was obvious how hard they had worked to reconnect the roads.

Another danger that was apparent was lootings. We passed lots of trucks that had been stopped and forcefully unloaded, long before they got near their destination. Again, if it wasn't for the army that has taken control of security, and our decision not to stop anywhere except for checkposts, things could have been very different for us.

We finally reached the Red Crescent office in Muzaffarabad in the middle of the night after about 10 hours, a journey that usually takes 3-4 hours by car.

Posted at 21:53pm PKT Comments(1) |

Tuesday 18th October 2005

Back from Muzaffarabad

Just returned after 5 days from Muzaffarabad in what was one of the most interesting and eye-opening experiences I have ever been through. Let me finish the full report (with pictures) and I'll post it here.

Posted at 21:36pm PKT Comments(3) |

Friday 14th October 2005

On my way to Muzaffarabad

mobileI'm in a truck which is part of a Red Crescent aid convoy on the way to Muzaffarabad in Kashmir. Were supposed to leave before 3pm, but there were too many delays.

Posted at 16:19pm PKT Comments(6) |

Helping the injured at PIMS

Spent most of the day (a very rewarding one) at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, which is a medical complex spread out over a whole sub-sector (about 1 square kilometers) of Islamabad. It is where a large number of the earthquake casualties are being treated. The whole day, there was a constant stream of injured people being flown in by helicopters or brought in on army ambulances (I have photos, but haven't found a way to move them out of my phone).

Though the numbers are great, there also seems to be no shortage of volunteers, mostly students, willing to help in whatever way they can. I was glad that they are streamlining the process and only allowing people to contribute after their details have been taken and they have been issued a volunteer card.

Once I got my card, surgical mask and a pair of surgical gloves, I set about helping out however I could. I don't have any medical training or experience so I couldn't do much in that area, but help is mostly required in transporting the injured, logistics work and running small errands. It isn't easy to manage such things as feeding so many people and ensuring there are enough beds.

A young man from Muzaffarabad I helped move from the operation theater to the patient ward, had a number of broken bones and other injuries. I was afraid of moving him at first, but was soon told how to lift him up safely. Another woman had had her arm amputated. She was barely conscious so we had to transport her with the whole bed.

There is still a shortage of tents and portable beds, both for the survivors in the affected areas and the relief camps being setup here. Please contribute in whatever way you can.

Posted at 01:51am PKT Comments(1) |

Thursday 13th October 2005

Late night tremor causes panic

About an hour ago, there was another tremor around the same region as the original quake. Aftershocks that were noticeable in Islamabad had subsided two days ago and this was the first jolt we felt since then. I was working on with the rest of the guys and though the quake felt very small to me, everyone else suddenly jumped up and started running outside, dragging me along. My arm somehow got a big scratch in this process.

Maybe it just felt stronger to most people since we were on the second floor, but I realized the whole building had emptied outside in a mad rush. My first thought was, "why are they leaving the office just because of a small tremor?" (the news services confirmed later on that it was a small tremor). Next, "why are they running like crazy?". And lastly, I was surprised by the kind of comments I heard.

Some people believed it was another huge magnitude 7+ quake . Others thought it was definitely over 6. My opinion is that it couldn't have been more than 5.0. Still others were convinced that it could not have been an "aftershock" 5 days after the last quake and that it was an "earthquake", whatever that meant to them. When I soon went back up to continue my work, alone, I was called back down again since everyone was really worried about me. They planned to spend the night sitting in their cars in the middle of the spacious parking so I got all my things and came to my own office.

I really think earthquake drills should be started right away to train people how to react in such a situation. They should also be educated more about earthquakes and the geology of this area. Otherwise, panic such as this could cause serious physical as well as mental casualties.

Posted at 03:46am PKT Comments(15) |

Wednesday 12th October 2005

Test mobile post before travelling

mobileI will be going with a Red Cross/Red Crescent team tonight to help with aid distribution. They are short of volunteers.

This is a test post from my mobile so that i can try to report from there.

Posted at 16:12pm PKT Comments(1) |

One of the first things I realized when I started looking at how I can contribute to the relief and rescue effort, was that there is no central website where you could find information on what to donate, where to donate and who to donate to. The same thought was echoed by many other people. Information on earthquake preparation, earthquake facts and quake recovery was abundant for other earthquake zones, such as Japan and California, but I found no such thing specific to this region.

My group of friends decided to combine all our efforts in working on such a site and we have spent the last couple of days on this. It's still a work in progress, but we are updating it as fast as possible. Though there are a number of sites dedicated to the relief operation, our aim is also to provide a comprehensive guide to disaster preparation and recovery that will be valid well into the future.

Donate Online

I have yet to add information about preparation and other facts, though there is already a listing of aid organizations. The organizations currently listed are all international ones and a listing of local aid agencies will follow shortly.

Posted at 15:39pm PKT Comments(4) |

Volunteers required for tent village

"Tent villages" are being setup all around Islamabad and Rawalpindi to take care of the large number of wounded coming in from the earthquake zones. These will operate around the clock, though there is a shortage of volunteers for this huge task. If you are willing to help out and work in shifts, please contact Haroon Kanth on 0300-9565505 immediately.

Posted at 13:24pm PKT Comments(1) |

Earthquake in Karachi/Quetta

Just watching the local news. There is a breaking news about an earthquake, of magnitude 4-5, that just struck Quetta (to the west of Pakistan, near the Iran-Afghan border) and Karachi (to the south, next to the Arabian sea).

The other guys got really worried with this news, but I told them that it isn't surprising since the whole country is part of the same Indian plate which is unstable right now. Actually, it's probably a positive thing since it means things are settling down to a more stable position. My words were backed by a geological expect who came on air soon afterwords.

No news of any damage so far and I hope it stays that way. We have had enough of that already.

Posted at 01:11am PKT Comments(219) |

Tuesday 11th October 2005

Feedback from Haroon

Haroon just got back after delivering aid to Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir and probably the worst hit place. It is situated very near the epicenter of the quake.

According to him, conditions there are the worst imaginable. Camps are setup, but the recent rains have caused more mudslides. Roads are open and accessible, though with a certain level of danger. They are as wide as before (i.e. pretty narrow) and the capacity is severely limited.

People are moving out of the cities, though the villages are still places where help is needed the most. The army is the main organization administering the aid so I think it would be a good idea to coordinate with them for any relief efforts.

Another advice. If you are delivering aid anywhere, avoid handing out medical supplies to the locals. Give it to professionals instead to avoid unnecessary wastage.

Posted at 21:57pm PKT Comments(1) |

My condolences to Aijaz and his family

I just spoke to my friend Aijaz who is in his hometown of Abbotabad right now. He lost a huge number of relatives in the earthquake. They didn't even have a chance when whole houses just came down and flattened everything. By the time he got the news, they told him it was too late to do anything.

May Allah grant them a place in heaven and give patience to the survivors.

Posted at 21:22pm PKT Comments(1) |

Medical Supplies and Shrouds for Earthquake Victims

Relief and rescue efforts are carrying on at a tremendous pace here in Islamabad, but the aid has only just started to arrive in the stricken areas. It will take even longer to reach more remote parts. The whole of Islamabad is dotted with collections centers that are working around the clock and trucks filled with clothes, foods and other supplies can be seen leaving all the time.

Despite the efforts, there is a severe shortage of medicines and with the death toll exploding to over 40,000, cloth to bury the dead has run out. Local stocks are exhausted and these will have to be brought in from other cities.

The weather has deteriorated quite a lot too. There was heavy rain and even hail today which will badly hamper the rescue effort. Some of my friends have already reached the devastation and I'm worried about them. With so many dead and injured still unattended, there is a high risk of disease.

I will ask anyone who manages to read this to try to contribute in whatever way they can. Here is a list of the most urgently needed medical supplies (spelling not confirmed):

  • 1.Dexilose Saline 5% 100ml
  • 2.Ringer lactate 1000ml
  • 3.drip sets butterfly
  • 4.tetanus toxoid DIS 5 cc, DIS 10 cc, paragon sticking, LP needles
  • 5.IVJ Cephradine
  • 6.IVJ Flagyl
  • 7.IVJ Adrenaline
  • 8.IVJ Atropine
  • 9.Disposable syringes (5 cc, 20 cc, 50 cc)
  • 10.ETT 7.5
  • 11.Airway 16, 18, 20, 22
  • 12.Surgical Gloves
  • 13.prolene 210
  • 14.AMHU Bags
  • 15.Gauze Pieces
  • 16.Pyodine
  • 17.Silk Structure C-Straight Needles
  • 18.Crape Bandages
  • 19.Dressing Bandages
  • 20.Sterilized Cotton
  • 21.NG Tubes
  • 22.Foley Catheter
  • 23.Urine Bags
  • 24.Chest tubes
  • 25.Xylogaine Gel
  • 26.Underwater Seal
  • 27. Needle holders
  • 28.Foreceps (dental & plain)
  • 29.Scalpels
  • 30.Nelbim Marzine Injection
  • 31.Skin Traction
  • 32.Surgical Blade
  • 33.anti-contamination tablets for water
  • 34.multivitamins

Posted at 20:49pm PKT Comments(2) |

Monday 10th October 2005

Keeping sane after the earthquake

Ever since the quake, most people I know, as well as myself, have been glued to the screen, listening to the news and watching mostly the same images of the devastation, over and over again. Although somehow, I've managed to keep my sanity and am trying to do what I can to help the victims, my friends and a lot of other people are showing signs of severe stress, depression and even mass-hysteria. The constant aftershocks made it even worse for them.

Strange rumours have been going around causing a certain amount of panic. People seem to be open to anything that they're told without verifying the information. Just this morning, before day-break, I got an SMS that a severe earthquake is predicted in 45 minutes. Upon further inquiry, I found out that this was announced at a local mosque, without any evidence to support it. And as expected, nothing happened. Actually, I was asleep within half an hour of the message.

I have been arguing with people who believe that some kind of "reversal" will happen anytime soon, bigger than the initial quake and one that will flatten Islamabad. No amount of convincing through detailed articles by experts and basic geology stopped them from deciding to move immediately to a city such as Lahore, leaving their current jobs and lives behind. I'm glad they eventually decided not to.

As predicted by meteorologists, the aftershocks are subsiding and people are regaining their wits. They are starting to divert their energies towards the relief effort, though the rumours are still spreading. The latest doomsday prediction is that a vent is opening up and that a volcano will soon emerge somewhere around Islamabad. What rubbish.

All I can say is that those who start these types of rumours at such a time really are despicable. They divert attention from where it is urgently needed and cause unnecessary trauma to everyone. And dear people, please don't believe everything you hear. Use your head and verify the information first.

I would also request the media to refute such nonsense and do more to keep people calm and orderly. Up till now, they have done an excellent job of keeping everyone informed and this would be a great thing to add.

And thank you CNN for reading my blog on air.

Posted at 21:42pm PKT Comments(10) |

Earthquake Relief Efforts

I've spent most of the day trying to help out with the aid that needs to be sent to the affected areas. It is really encouraging to see how the whole nation, usually thought of as unorganized and chaotic, is working together and doing whatever they can. There seems to be no end to all the food, clothing and other essentials coming in from people of all walks of life.

I dug up whatever I could in terms of blankets and warm clothing and took it to a friend's place which was already overwhelmed. They were sorting everything right there to prevent any delays while distributing so both Adeela and I took to helping out. But this really is a drop in the ocean since the main task is getting the aid to the people in the remote areas. The volunteers are hiring off-road vehicles for this purpose since trucks may not be able to reach those places.

Here are more links where you can donate online:

World Food Programme:
Kashmir International Relief Fund:
Red Cross/ Red Crescent:

Posted at 20:45pm PKT Comments(1) |

Sunday 9th October 2005

Current situation after quake

It has been just over 32 hours since the earthquake struck and the death toll is still rising. The last count was over 19,000 dead and over 42,000 injured. Aftershocks had stopped after the early morning ones, but they have returned in groups of 3 or 4, separated only by minutes. There were quite a few very long ones this afternoon.

Though most of the images on TV show the single apartment block in Islamabad, virtually all the damage was done in the mountainous region north of here. There are reports of mudslides there and there isn't much aid getting through due to blocked roads and bad terrain. Last night's thunderstorm and rain didn't help either. All this would make it very difficult to get accurate casualty and death figures.

At the time of the quake and for a while after it, things didn't look nearly as bad. There weren't even any reports of any structural damage, let alone collapses and deaths. It was only much later that the actual realization came through.

My friends and I, as a lot of other people, really want to help out with the rescue effort, but there doesn't seem to be much we can do on the ground right now. Without the right expertise, resources and planning, it might actually hinder the rescue effort instead of helping it. Since most of the rescue work is currently only possible by air, driving upto such a place would only cause problems such as road blocks.

In the meantime, we have decided to do whatever we can using our current skillsets. I was searching for a central website which might accept donations online, but did not find any and it is one area I can work on. We should have something running soon.

Here are a few links which might help those wanting to make donations:

Posted at 17:27pm PKT Comments(348) |

Saturday 8th October 2005


It seems that the frequency of aftershocks has been increasing. Though most are small tremors, some are quite big. And one a couple of hours ago was really big. Almost as big as the first one, but lasting a few seconds. It's said that these will continue till tomorrow morning. Let's hope they don't cause any more damage.

Posted at 17:58pm PKT Comments(2) |

Biggest Quake

An earthquake of 7.6 magnitude struck this region just before 9 o'clock this morning. I woke up to find windows rattling and everything swaying. At first I couldn't figure out what it was, then, as things started to clear, I asked Mariam (my sister) standing nearby if it was an earthquake.

It lasted about 2 whole minutes and was probably the strongest quake I have ever felt (including the ones I experienced in Japan during the five years I was there). Still, it didn't feel like anything over 5.5 or 6.0 and we were quite surprised to hear the final rating. Mariam and I immediately switched on the tele and kept jumping between the Beeb, CNN and Geo, which soon starting reporting on it.

At first, there wasn't any news of damage or casualties. Then I managed to talk to Majed (it was almost impossible to get through to most people, especially Mobilink users) and found out that an apartment building had collapsed in F-10, soon verified by the news services. Now, there are reports of many more damages and they say the death toll could go over a thousand. Though all my immediate friends and family are ok, some of their families saw boundary walls collapsing and cracks appearing in houses.

Mariam and I have been in quite a few earthquakes, in Pakistan and in Japan, and soon moved on to discussing the consequences of bird flu and other topics. Bushra however, being from Karachi where quakes are pretty rare, couldn't get over it and was still trembling when I left home.

There have been at least five aftershocks since the morning quake, much less intense, but still quite strong. The last one just a few minutes ago. There was also a rumour that another big one was predicted at noon, but thankfully it was just that. Besides, I doubt earthquakes can be predicted in such a way. More later.

Posted at 15:19pm PKT Comments(1) |

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