At first glance, despite the tired and grief-stricken faces, the majority of Uri residents seemed normal. But every now and then, I was reminded that life here was far from “normal.” One thing that caught my attention was the bizarre cry of an angry man yelling at some villagers. His voice crackled and scratched against the sides of his throat. His eyes conveyed a sense of despair, shock, and bewilderment, and his dirty, unkempt appearance led me to believe that he had probably lost more than just his home. Had he been digging through debris to reach a victim? Perhaps he had lost a child in a collapsed school building, or his wife had been killed.
As the days went by and temperatures continued to drop, I kept thinking about the 3.5 million people left homeless by the earthquake. Winter is a struggle here even under normal circumstances, given the extreme cold, regular power failures, and poor heating. Thousands of tents were sent to the region to provide shelter, but only a fraction were winterized. And now heavy rain, ice, and snow, combined with freezing temperatures, had turned this region into a death zone, and the majority of the tents were of absolutely no use.
Amid this tragedy, I was relieved to learn from my cousin, Fozia Qazi G’89, G’01, that a few nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) had the foresight to realize the folly of dependence on tents alone. In Indian-administered Kashmir, CHINAR.org (Child Nurture and Relief), an organization that Fozia co-founded and runs, was trying hard to establish suitable housing for the victims. Fozia’s NGO has an orphanage in the capital city of Srinagar, where children orphaned by the ongoing conflict have found a safe and loving home. Now there were more orphans, and CHINAR was helping with relief efforts. They adopted the village of Saidpora, near Uri, and a neighboring hamlet, Balakot Patti. Instead of providing tents, CHINAR constructed shelters of corrugated steel and plywood, with two rooms and a kitchen. By mid-January, they had built 55 shelters for families. I volunteered at one of the sites and found CHINAR’s work fulfilling. In fact, CHINAR’s shelters were so well received that several government and NGO agencies followed suit in providing similar housing.
However, in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, thousands of victims remained in remote hilltop areas, without access to medical care and other relief. These regions have few roads, and there were even fewer access routes given the landslides that accompanied the earthquake. Various helicopter missions dropped aid to these regions and evacuated the seriously injured to hospitals in the lower plains and other areas. But realizing the grim conditions that lay ahead for these homeless, I couldn’t fathom why the UN, Pakistan, and India were not coordinating a mass evacuation, especially with predictions that thousands more would die from the severe cold and related diseases.
I wonder why it was the fate of a region and a people already devastated by years of turmoil and poverty to be tested by such a terrible tragedy. I can’t comprehend why, just like with the 2004 tsunami, famine in Africa, and Hurricane Katrina, it is the poorest of the poor who suffer the most. But then I am reminded of a comment made by my grandmother, a deeply religious and unpretentious lady. She explained that such catastrophic events are not tests for the millions of poor and helpless who do not have even the basics to survive. Such disasters are really a trial for the rest of us who live comfortably, to see whether we allow such tragedies to be forgotten just as soon as the evening news ends, or the media’s attention moves on to more ostentatious stories. The test is to see whether the rest of us do our part to help the poor on a regular and substantial basis, or whether we conspire to remain silent in word and deed.
Sana Bég ’04 is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School