It was many years ago that I met that woman in Sandwip. It was after the cyclone in Bangladesh in 1991. Our helicopter had landed in the damaged airstrip of Patenga airport in Chittagong. There had been no fire, so why were the leaves all charred? What had happened on that fateful night of 29th April? My questions to the ‘experts’ resulted in the standard response.
The aid worker told me of the bags of wheat they’d given out. The engineers talked of the torque of the wind. The government officers spoke of the funds they had allocated. Then the woman spoke. In a quiet but controlled voice she said, ‘The land became the sea and the sea became a wave’. It took those words, for me the photographer, to see what had happened that night.
While I had felt the pain of the Tsunami victims and their survivors, the predominant coverage of tourists and western ‘experts’ had angered me. As an aid worker and later a photographer after the Tsunami in Colombo, I could relate to the resilience of the victims, but the aid efforts had changed. There were many more ‘experts’ in the fray and I could see how the media and other major players determined how things panned out. News of the earthquake in Kashmir also filtered through slowly. As the death figures rose, I remembered how as children we had gone out singing songs, collecting blankets whenever a disaster struck. I wanted to go out to Pakistan, but it was different this time. One needed visas, letters of invitation. The time to be there came and went. I decided to wait. But as the media moved on, and people forgot, the pain gnawed inside of me. As the winter drew near, I worried about what might be happening. I wrote to my old friends in Concern Worldwide. We had worked together for many years. My first photojournalistic assignment had come from them, at a time when I was not well known as a photojournalist. We had continued to partner over the years, their food for work programme, their housing efforts, their work in the wetlands, the unwritten stories of rickshaw wallas. Lyndall Stein, in particular, was someone I had worked with closely in more recent times, when I wanted to develop an Asian chapter for the project ‘Positive Lives’. She wasn’t in Concern then. Now that she was executive director of Concern Worldwide UK, I felt I could share my concerns with her. Something had to be done. As a photographer and a story teller, I could at least tell the stories of these forgotten people. The clock was ticking.
Lyndall and her team responded quickly. There was little bureaucracy or paper work. I didn’t even have a contract and we hadn’t agreed rates. We had mutual trust. I bought my own tickets and landed in Islamabad.
It was Amjad the driver who brought it home as we approached Balakot, when he said, “This was a city. Now it’s a graveyard.” This time the waves were different. Entire mountainsides had flowed like liquid, crushing all in its path. It was in December that we met a family on a remote mountain near Neelam. Fatema’s husband had been crushed by their falling roof. Her mother-in-law had been hurled below; she survived the fall but died of a heart attack when she heard of her son’s death. They had not come across the army, government officials, aid agencies, but as in Muzaffarabad city, they were just getting on with their lives. Rebuilding their homes before the snow closed in.
The response to the disaster was overwhelming. Besides the many appeals that Concern Worldwide organised in the UK and Ireland, there were other appeals organised in Europe. The story again began to make it in to the news. Winter came and went. Many survived the bitter chill, but months later, and nearly a year on, much of the talked about reconstruction was yet to be made. The pledges seemed to have been forgotten. Again I turned to Lyndall, again she responded. I had worked hurriedly the last time and felt there were many personal stories that needed to be recorded, which I had failed to do. This time we felt a writer should also be in the team. Concern Worldwide had high regard for journalist Ann McFerran, who had produced strong work for them in Africa.
Ann and I met in Islamabad, and after a short initiation, we went out to Muzaffarabad. I had slept in a tent in the garden the last time round. This time I stayed indoors. The office couch was my bed. But nearly a year on, tents were still where most people lived. The after tremors still shook the ground and even people who had moved back to their homes lived in fear. They would move out to their tents at night, not trusting themselves to wake up in time and move out in case there was another quake.
As Ann and I went through the ravaged land, we found people who had suffered many times over. Shabbir and Razia had taken shelter in a tent after their home was destroyed. Their temporary home was washed away by a flash flood, one of the many after-effects of the earthquake. All that they had salvaged, and the 17,000 rupees that remained of the compensation they had received from the government had also gone. They now also had a newborn baby to look after.
We came across tender love stories, as that of Muhammed Saleem Khan, who despite injuries of his own, pushed his unconscious wife Rubina on a home-made stretcher for two days to Abbas Hospital in Muzaffarabad. Muhammed looked after the children and doted on Rubina, but she was sad. The children had become close to the father and she herself, paralysed from the waist down and unable to look after them, felt the children were moving away from her.
Safdar Hussain had been buried under stones for four days and thought he had died. Having lost his wife and children to the earthquake, he wept for his mother. They said he was mentally unstable.
But Fazila Bibi had a different story to tell. “Before the earthquake we were happy, healthy people,” she said, “the sort of people who gave to beggars. Now we have nothing, and we must do with nothing, but we are stronger people.” Fazila and her family in a tent in Jalalabad Park in Muzaffarabad waited for things to get better. Waited with quiet strength.
Cluster bombs, warheads, bombs that dig deep before exploding, compete with burning oil wells, toxic spills and nuclear dumping, to shake our fragile earth. Rampant consumer cultures arrogantly shun treaties to curb out destructive habits. In a globalised world where material and human world resources are fodder for exploitation by giant nations and business entities, nature in its fury reminds us that our lives are entwined.