October 8 Killer Quake: Many more will die as the winter descends ..... Print E-mail
The Hindu Sunday Magazine - November 13, 2005 
They still need us
By Kalpana Sharma

The response to the earthquake in Kashmir remains muted.

TOUGH: Survivors have to trek with relief material. PHOTO: REUTERS

EVEN as you sit down to read this, a child in Kashmir will die. He or she survived the killer quake of October 8, 2005. But exposure to the cold will snatch away life from someone who has barely lived it.

A month ago, the mountains shook in India and Pakistan. We know today that over 73,000 people were killed in Pakistan and a couple of thousand in India. According to the United Nations Children's (originally International Children's Emergency) Fund (UNICEF), 17,000 children have been killed in the earthquake and an estimated 10,000 have been orphaned. But even as we come to term with these numbers, many more will die as the winter descends on the scattered and flattened villages on both sides of the border. In the face of that biting cold, the tents under which the survivors cower at the moment might as well not be there.

Did any of this affect us during the festive season that has just ended? In a week during which Deepavali and Id were celebrated, there was little indication that people remembered the survivors of the killer quake of last month. Lakhs of rupees were burnt in firecrackers; many more were spent in buying gifts and sweets. Did we spare a thought for those families for whom Id consisted of a thanksgiving that they had survived and a prayer that they would live through the next few months of bitter cold?

Society is silent
The story of the continuing tragedy in the mountains of Kashmir on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC) dividing India and Pakistan has slipped off the main news columns. While Pakistan has seen a response by non-governmental groups and from Pakistanis from around the world, in India the response of civil society remains muted. Although there was some mention of corporates offering help, none has been evident on the ground on our side of Kashmir.

On both sides of the border there are common threads that run through the accounts of the kind of help reaching people. For instance, in both India and Pakistan, people have donated old clothes but most of these have been culturally inappropriate and thus of little use to people. On this side of the border, people have gathered the old, discarded and sometimes torn clothes and used them to light fires to keep themselves warm during the freezing cold nights.

One of the most striking accounts of what is happening on the Indian side of Kashmir comes from the Bangalore-based historian and peace activist Yoginder Sikand. Writing on the site www.countercurrents.org, Sikand describes the stark reality facing the earthquake hit on this side of the LoC. He says that the situation is particularly grim in Tangdhar and parts of the Karnah tehsil as the area, connected to the rest of the State by the 10,417 Sadhna Pass, could soon be cut off when it starts to snow. This was the area that received 16 feet of snow last year. Without fuel, food or temporary shelters, thousands of those who survived the quake could die.

For the sake of a child
In Pakistan, the situation is far grimmer because the impact was much greater. On the Internet and on the e-mail, there are many heart-rending accounts that are circulating that give us some inkling of the extent of the suffering of ordinary people in the devastated countryside. But here is a quote from one such e-mail by a Pakistani journalist covering the region that describes in graphic detail the choices people face:

"The situation in the mountains remains unremittingly grim. The battle for survival of the Kashmiri mountain people is such an incredible story ? and the one that the army now seems determined to suppress ? that anyone who has not seen it happening is unlikely to believe it ... A 78-year-old visually handicapped man ? holding on to his ageing wife climbing 5,300 ft up a hill from his village, descending 5,300 ft on the other side, getting two bottles of water (with his wife getting a kilo of sugar and five packets of biscuits), climbing 5,300 ft back to the top of the hill, descending the same distance to get back to his village. All for the only survivor in his family ? a five-year-old child who is left in the care of a neighbour all this time. This couple will do the same routine every second day till the snow cuts off their only topsy-turvy and at places exceedingly dangerous route to life. After that, all they can do is wait to die. This is a real life story and one of perhaps tens of thousands that are unfolding in the mountains of Kashmir."

According to reports from Pakistan, 10,000 children could die within the next two weeks due to exposure to the cold. Another 100,000 of the three million survivors could die in the next four weeks because of cold, lack of medical attention, lack of food and most importantly, lack of shelter.

On November 8, Pakistanis in many parts of the world held a vigil to remember the victims of the South Asian earthquake and to pledge support for the survivors. But despite all the appeals and all that has been written, adequate aid for the quake victims is just not coming. On November 1, the United Nations admitted that only one quarter of the $550 million it had asked for as aid for the quake affected had been donated.

Hostile response
What will it take to move us to help? "They still need us - we must not abandon them," wrote one of those appealing for help. When Sikand went door-to-door in Bangalore to collect relief for the Kashmir quake victims, the response was most hostile. People called it a "Muslim tragedy" and asked why they should help "terrorists". This is a devastating comment on our humanity, or rather the lack of it. Does a natural calamity have a religion? Does politics decide who will live or die in an earthquake? I would like to believe that not everyone is like the people who refused Sikand's outstretched hand. For those who want to help, check www.kashmirquakerelief.org. It is never too late to do something. A few hundred rupees could help at least one of the children trapped on those freezing mountains to survive and live to see another day.