The large medical camp at the edge of the town of Balakot was run by Cubans, who had arrived on a plane dispatched from Havana after Fidel Castro heard about the devastation that the earthquake had caused in northern Pakistan. Word spread about the doctors and their can-do attitude and every morning throngs of people would descend from the mountains carrying their wounded to be treated. It was quite a sight, the young carrying the old on their backs for hours, often going downhill for help.
When I arrived there in November 2005, I was greeted by a man who everyone lovingly called Bhatti Sahib. Maqbool Bhatti hailed from Khanpur where he ran Ansar Welfare Trust, an organisation which had the reputation of undertaking projects for the betterment of the people in the community. Bhatti Sahib had woken up the morning after the earthquake, packed up whatever relief goods he had and along with his sons driven from Punjab to Balakot and set up the camp which now the Cubans were a part of.
Every day one heard dozens of tragic stories, families torn apart, entire communities destroyed, villages flattened and children orphaned. Balakot was not the place for the weak hearted. Time makes us forget tragedies and when basic relief work is over, people move on, except those who actually suffered the tragedy; they carry the scars with them forever.
In order to feed the dozens of doctors, relief workers and the translators, the camp employed a cook, a young pretty woman by the name of Nasreen. I was immediately struck by the sadness in her smile.
The Balakot tragedy lingers in the air nine years after and its effects still permeate through the lives of many
Nasreen’s husband was killed in the earthquake leaving behind four children and a widow. In the early days after the earthquake, many organisations with links to radical Islam descended into Balakot. When Nasreen tried to seek help from one such camp, she was told that in order to qualify for relief she would have to do strict purdah. Nasreen quietly left the camp and made her way to the Cuban camp, where she and her cooking skills were welcomed.
But Balakot, like most of Pakistan, is not a hospitable place for a pretty young widow. Not wanting to rely on charity, Nasreen started searching for a job and one day I found her sobbing near the kitchen. “I tried searching for a job but it’s so difficult being a woman here. Men constantly ask me to meet them in places. They promise me a job, a bed and money if I agree to meet them alone. I don’t feel like leaving my tent now.”
As the camp wound up its operations I could see Nasreen’s desperation increase. At least, at the camp she had a way to feed her four young children, now she was running out of options and on the day I left, she told me, “My life has changed a lot; now, it’s just one big problem. I don’t know why I didn’t die. I’m forced to live for my children. I feel like a lifeless body...”
Undoubtedly as we all left Balakot, we were leaving countless Nasreens behind to fend for themselves. Many of them only had faded photographs and memories to hold on to, with little prospects for the future.
In May 2006, out of the blue, I received a phone call from Nasreen who had moved her children to Karachi and wanted my help in securing a sewing machine to earn a living. In order to survive, she would sow clothes; money from that and zakat money from others enabled her to send her three children to school. Her eldest daughter Laiba was traumatised after the earthquake and never recovered so she stayed home. Unable to take care of herself, Nasreen spent much of her time tending to her needs.
But Karachi was kind to her, she was able to live alone with her four children and though she was robbed countless times, she always said, “Karachi lets me be who I am, here I don’t have to explain things to people, here I can take the bus and go anywhere. This is my home now …”
Then in November 2012, I was woken up by a phone call from Jinnah hospital a woman had been bought in with multiple gun shot wounds. Nasreen had been caught in crossfire during a bout of sectarian violence. Six stray bullets had hit her while she waited for the bus and she was now in a critical condition. Three in the stomach, two in the back and one grazed another part of her body. Miraculously, she survived.
After two months of fighting for her life Nasreen emerged from the hospital relieved to be back home with her children. But she was incapable of taking care of them, often falling sick, her wounds never fully healing. I found the light in her eyes slowly dimming and she often said, “I just want to die now …”
Her children pitched in, after school they did odd jobs around the house and tried their best to make their mother feel better. But they are children after all, and there is only so much they can do. This week, Nasreen is back in hospital and needs to undergo a series of tests and minor operations for her food pipe. She has been unable to eat properly for months. Here begins another round of procedures, expenses and hospital visits, none of which she wants or can afford.
She is often wishful, had her husband been alive, she would have been living in the mountains, her children would have been well looked after, she would have had family and love and a home in her name. Her youngest son still asks about his father and Nasreen often responds, “He will be back ...” and then becomes silent.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 20th, 2014