In Mansehra, Battgram, Shangla and Abbottabad, one can find many families which were not only financially ruined by the earthquake but also psychologically devastated.
bbottabad was where those visiting from south first saw the effects of the disastrous earthquake. As one moved further north, the horrific destruction extended till Garhi Habibullah. There was hardly abuilding left standing in Mansehra. Many bodies left on cots placed on the roadsides awaited attention. A large number of men and women with no roof over their heads waited for assistance. One saw dozens of girls’ shoes in one place, but no girls. On a closer examination, one learnt that the entire school building had collapsed. A large number of children as well as their teachers lay buried under the rubble.
Across from Garhi Habibullah, Balakot could not be reached by land as the bridge connecting the two cities had collapsed. Passing through the small market of Garhi Habibullah, we saw dozens of bodies wrapped in blankets. Mass funeralswere being organised in several places. One of the affected men angrily told a cameraman to stop filming. He believed that the media had caused the disaster by inviting the wrath of God. These were the scenes we saw on the afternoon of October 8, 2005. We were part of the first cohort of media personnel to see the devastation.
Seventeen years have passed and a lot has changed. Even now, when I travel in these areas, I have a strange feeling. The sights and scenes take me back seventeen years to the day when thousands of people were killed in an earthquake. A modern motorway has since been built in the area and much development has taken place.
It was such a big disaster that several institutions continue to deal with its aftermath till today. New institution were in fact created by legislation to handle the crisis. Among others, the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority was established then. The purpose of this institution was to carry out rehabilitation work in the earthquake-affected districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The ERRA claimed to have completed the construction of 4,000 houses but many affected by the quake continue to live in squalour.
The areas affected by the earthquake were mostly mountainous. A majority of the residents in these districts are still living below the poverty line. Many people are still living in tents. For these people, the government had promised the development of a new housing society by the name of New Balakot City. Experts working on seismic zones then determined that Balakot and Girlat were in an earthquake prone location. For this reason, in 2007, the government decided to move the population to a safer place. 15,000 kanals of land was arranged for the New Balakot City project for 5,000 residential plots. So far, only 1,500 houses have been constructed on these plots.
The local people have been protesting the lack of progress now and then. A former president of Mansehra District Bar Association Munir Hussain Laghmani moved an application before the Supreme Court. The then chief justice Saqib Nisar took notice of the alleged irregularities in the project. It was reported that $5 billion had been donated for it by various countries. However, the outcome was not different from the other suomotu notices by the former chief justice. Advocate Laghmani says hundreds of schools and hospitals planed as a part of the rehabilitation are still waiting to be built. Recently, a group of citizens held another protest demonstration against the delay. Chairman of the New Balakot City Movement, Mian Mohammad Ashraf, too, led a token protest.
“The government should immediately allot plots in the New Balakot City housing project to the earthquake-affected families.Otherwise, we will march on the federal and provincial capitals,” said Mian Mohammad Ashraf.
He claimed that the federal government had diverted the funds donated by the international community for rehabilitation and reconstruction to other projects.
Mohammad Faheem, a resident of Mansehra, said that seventeen members of his family had lost their lives in the earthquake. “Life for my parents is no longer the same as it was before October 8, 2005. Every year on October 8 there is a strange silence in our house. My mother misses her two brothers very much. My father goes to the cemetery in the morning. His father, brother and a sister died in the earthquake.”
Hundreds of affected families are still living in rented houses after their houses in various parts of Mansehra were destroyed by the earthquake. Mohammad Fahim says that his house was destroyed too, after which they came to Mansehra city. He has been living in a rented house for seventeen years because they never had enough money to rebuild their home. He says they also did not wish to live in the same area. Today there are a few shops on the land where their house used to be. They use the income from those shops to pay the house rent.
In Mansehra, Battgram, Shangla and Abbottabad, one can find many families that were not only financially ruined in the earthquake but also psychologically devastated. It then seemed that the entire world was willing to help rehabilitate the people affected by the catastrophe. After nearly two decades the job remains incomplete and there have been accusations of irregularities in the management of funds beside.
Following the recent floods, a lot of rehabilitation efforts are once again needed. However, even after the United Nations launched an appeal for funds, donations this time around have been much fewer and farther in between.
The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist, researcher and trainer.