Journalist Khadeeja Balkhi visits with victim

KARACHI, Pakistan (WOMENSENEWS)–In Karachi, we are accustomed to alarming news as part of our daily lives. So when I heard about the South Asian earthquake on the morning of Oct. 8, I took it in stride.

It was a Saturday, so errand day for me. Several hours later, vaguely-recalled images from the TV screen reminded me to check in with my sisters in Islamabad.

Over the phone, my 6-year-old niece, Zainab Wasay, described how the earthquake felt from there.

"The whole house became like a swing," she said breathlessly. The family darted outside, into the garden. When the house stopped swaying like sheets on a clothesline, they returned, stunned, but ready to resume their daily lives. At least for the time being.

I forged ahead with more chores. What could it have been exactly that I thought was so important? Posting letters? Getting the car oil changed? I can’t recall. I just know that later, when I got home and turned on the TV news, I was numbed.

How irrelevant my frenzied activities suddenly seemed. I received a barrage of calls from people who were worried about me because I was close to a major disaster. A friend in Iran, Vajiheh Akbarzadeh, e-mailed me: "Accept my condolences on the death of so many people in the earthquake . . . "

It clicked. The pieces of this massive, regional disaster started falling into place, at a dizzying pace.

‘Relief Shelter Drive’ Evolved

Out of a harried exchange of e-mails and phone calls with friends and strangers around the globe, an informal effort we call the Relief Shelter Drive evolved.

The drive’s dozen or so core volunteers, mostly young professionals, chose the goal of providing shelter to far-flung areas where relief organizations or the government had not reached.

The bitter Himalayan winter loomed and shelter from torrential rain, hail and snow was the most pressing need of the 3.5 million people made homeless by the quake.

So far, we have helped 400 families.

The quake hit on the fourth day of Ramadan, the Islamic month that focuses on spirituality with fasting from sunrise to sunset. Fasting was no obstacle to volunteers. To me, it meant that time spent on breakfast and lunch was spared for work.

But the joy of Eid–the celebration marking the end of Ramadan–never set in.

Many here spent their Eid holidays with quake survivors instead of their families. Many high-school teens refused to decorate their hands with henna, a favorite way of displaying our festive spirits. Instead, they dressed down and set aside all their Eidi–gift money–to donate to relief efforts.

Funds raised from the Relief Shelter Drive’s social networks grew. We partnered with the Boston-based Association for the Development for Pakistan.

Here in Pakistan, we partnered with the Education Health Development Foundation, which sets up schools in the quake-hit area. We purchase and deliver relief supplies mainly through a network of people who trek to identify places where aid has not yet arrived.

The drive has also designed and tested a polypropylene sac shelter that is insulated enough to withstand the winter. Bags are stuffed with soil and stacked, military bunker style. The shelters meet our other criteria as well: they are safe, economically feasible, suitable to the climate and are locally made with indigenous materials.

I allow myself to celebrate the small victories of our relief work.

I Meet Gulshan in Karachi

Almost a month after the quake, on Nov. 7, I met Gulshan Dalola here. She is from the village of Dalola near the town of Gari Habibullah in Pakistan’s North Western Frontier Province. She was airlifted to the National Medical Center in Karachi. She had lost sensation in her legs due to a severe spinal cord injury and had a serious head injury.

The quake hit just after she had dressed her two boys, Ramzan and Waqar, and sent them to school. Fellow villagers rescued her at 5 p.m., about eight hours later. They found her alive but unconscious, clutching her year-old daughter Tayyaba beneath crossed arms. Tayyaba was unharmed with only minor bruises on her cheeks. The way the roof collapsed, only Gulshan’s torso and arms were fully saved; the same parts of her that held her baby.

After I met Gulshan I asked her if I could get her something she really liked. Something to eat perhaps? Tears welled in her eyes and she looked away. I knew all she really wanted was to be with the suckling infant she had to leave behind in the care of her grandmother. She asked me if I would include their names in my article. For her sake I have, even though she cannot understand English.

Gulshan showed me how women’s lives so often revolve around their children.

In the aftermath, mothers held the hands of their children as they died, trapped under the rubble of their schools. The United Nations says 300 pregnant women deliver in the quake-hit region every day with medical facilities that are patchy at best. Many of the deliveries are premature or injury-induced.

My colleague Sarah Karim sees Gulshan as one of the luckier survivors. She had not lost any family members. She was getting proper medical care, in a real hospital. She has reason to hope that she will walk again, although doctors can not say when. As long as her family finds shelter and a means of livelihood in the interim, she can return to her life.

Worse Endings

But there are so many worse endings.

As the TV cameras told us, there was a little girl with pigtails who survived, sheltered under her classroom table as she watched the weight of the rubble kill her best friends on either side.

From my volunteer friend, Dr. Samreen Jamshed, we also know about the quivering father who could not stop crying when he arrived at a medical camp after three days of trekking with his injured daughter on his back. He could only carry one child and support his wife through the journey. He thought his son had the lesser chance of making it given the severity of his injuries and was forced to leave him behind.

I do not naturally turn my mind to these stories. They seek me out. They register and re-register. The first time they did, I just leaned against my closet and wept as though my world had shattered.

Technically, my life is unchanged. I and none of my family members were not among the over 87,000 killed or the 220,000 plus severely injured. So I question my tears. Perhaps they are simply a way of defending sanity in a place where insanity has snatched the reins.

Khadeeja Balkhi is a business journalist currently based in Karachi, Pakistan.


For more information:

Relief Shelter Drive:

Association for the Development of Pakistan:

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