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At the mercy of fate, have we learnt from history?

Published May 24, 2015 01:10pm

A decade has passed since the 2005 earthquake that devastated Azad Jammu and Kashmir, but no lessons have been learned and no precautions have been taken

Mohammad Ali had banished all memories of the devastating earthquake of 2005 that had wreaked havoc in Muzaffarabad in the early hours of Oct 8. However, the recent tremors in Nepal seem to have gripped him with anxiety again. In any instant, it could be 2005 again. Or worse.

What adds to the concerns of the 60-something-year-old is his worry that state-run institutions are neither properly prepared nor do they have a safety plan to meet any such eventuality.

“God forbid, if we are struck by another earthquake as is being warned by geologists from different parts of the world, I am afraid our institutions won’t be able to deliver and contain losses,” he fumes, standing outside his superficially repaired house in Khawaja Mohalla, one of the worst-hit neighbourhoods of Muzaffarabad.

Bashir Chohan, Ali’s neighbour, nods in agreement.

“We are living in these houses out of necessity. Given the skyrocketing prices of real estate, how can we move out to new abodes? The government should have implemented its promises for the resettlement of survivors like us,” he complains.

According to experts, Muzaffarabad sits at the boundary between the slowly colliding Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates, both composed of thick continental crust. The pressure of the collision isn’t released gradually but suddenly, when rocks that can no longer bear the stress finally crack. These forces make Kashmir one of the most earthquake-prone regions on Earth.

And therefore, people like Ali and Chohan have reason to panic.

Ten years on since the 2005 earthquake, they still inhabit houses that were not retrofitted in accordance with the laid down standards. These houses continue to exist along the narrow alleys or the hazardous mountain slopes, where rescuers can hardly reach instantly in case a calamity, such as an earthquake, strikes the area.

According to initial plans, hundreds of affected families were to be gradually relocated from the most vulnerable and hazardous areas in and around Muzaffarabad to the proposed satellite towns. In the main old city, open spaces were to be created where people could rush to safety in emergencies.

The satellite towns are yet to see the light of the day, 10 years later, and nobody knows what criteria the government is going to adopt for the allotment of plots therein.

The affected families waited for three to four years for relocation, but then they resigned themselves to the status quo, repaired their severely or slightly damaged houses out of necessity, and moved back in. Those who had resources rebuilt or repaired their houses in accordance with the building codes. But the rest went for superficial repairs at best.

During reconstruction of their homes, the majority did not surrender a single foot for allowing pathways and resultantly the area is as constricted as it used to be before the quake. The no objection certificates (NOC) issued by the civic bodies concerned allowed construction of “light frame structures,” but in practice, most have built or are building concrete houses.

Some have even occupied watercourses, and all that has happened under the nose of the civic bodies. In particular, the new constructions towards the slopes on the eastern, western and northern sides of the city reflect serious violation of rules. Offending parties allegedly include government and judiciary members, leading neighbours to remark how those who should have known better are making a mockery out of the rules they should have been implementing.

“State institutions have completely failed to maintain checks and balances and this spells disaster for the town,” comments a resident who introduced himself as Miskeen. “In such a situation, how can you expect others to follow official guidelines?”

In many new post-quake constructions, particularly the shopping plazas that have mushroomed in the towns of AJK, safety standards have rarely been met. “I can bet you there aren’t any emergency exits even in shopping plazas built after the earthquake, thanks to the inefficient civic bodies,” says female lawyer Kousar Awan.

In many earthquake-prone countries, earthquake drills are conducted regularly to educate and familiarise people on what to do in the event of a tremor. But in private conversations, government officials admit that they are yet to devise and disseminate any sort of safety plan to face a calamity like an earthquake.

It is because such guidelines do not exist that last year a student fractured her arm after a tremor triggered a stampede in a school.

Zahid Amin, who has headed both the civic bodies of Muzaffarabad — Municipal Corporation and Development Authority — is also concerned about disaster preparedness not being adequate.

“It is true that most of us did not know about this geological fact before 2005 and that’s why we were caught unawares on that fateful morning … But how will we justify our indifference towards preparation in case we are struck by a similar tragedy in the future?” he asks.

Amin has been raising his voice under the banner of his organisation, Muzaffarabad City Development Foundation, against alleged lapses in the reconstruction programme that he says risk the lives of survivors.

“Ordinary people as well as government officials tend to overlook that we are situated in the seismic zone 4 and are more vulnerable than the past,” he says.

Amin, too, laments the fact that many people have violated building codes during new constructions of private houses and commercial plazas, taking advantage of inefficient or ineffective monitoring regime. He points out that in the two civic bodies of Muzaffarabad, there is not a single building inspector or structural engineer to keep a vigil on new constructions and whether they are being constructed in accordance with the building codes.

“After the earthquake NESPAK conducted seismic hazard microzonation of Muzaffarabad and the Japan International Cooperation Agency prepared a land use plan based on its geological working. But that was not implemented due to reasons best known to the government,” he says.

According to Amin, the urban strategy prepared after the earthquake and approved by the Federal Planning Commission in August 2007 was also shelved. “If ever we faced devastation in future, it would be because of the indifference, or rather the failure, of the government and its institutions.”

A government official admits that disaster preparedness falls at its bottom rung of priorities. “Over the last four years, the government has not held a single serious brainstorming session to review the level of preparedness or upgrade the strategy to meet any such eventuality. Not even after the Nepal earthquakes,” says the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Amin regrets that nobody has learnt a lesson.

“Had it been so, projects of vital importance would not have been shelved. Ironically, both the government and public are in deep slumber,” he says.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, the government established State Disaster Management Authority, imitating the central and provincial governments. The Authority has a sort of managerial role: it is supposed to coordinate with all departments, as well as national and international NGOs, to help them carry out their part of the responsibility to tackle a calamity.

But unfortunately, the dire need to raise or strengthen a specialised operational workforce for the specialised task of disaster response is not getting due attention. One glaring example of such oversight has been the launch of an organised and effective emergency services regime.

In the event of any calamity, the first organisation a rescuer or donor from outside likes to contact and liaise with is the local emergency service. After the 2005 earthquake, foreigners were shocked to know that no such service existed in AJK.

It was in 2007 that Rescue 1122 was launched in Mirpur, Kotli, Bhimber, Sudhnoti and Muzaffarabad districts as a project of the AJK Planning and Development Department with a staff of 164 persons.

The staff underwent trainings according to international standards, but eight years on, the government has not been able to give legal cover to the body and expand its services to the remaining five districts. This alone speaks volumes about the government’s seriousness to handle an emergency situation.

In the event of a disaster, either earthquakes or floods, there are different phases of emergency services and the first phase — search and rescue (of survivors) — has to be carried out by Rescue 1122.

But sadly, those assigned this important task in AJK are themselves in a state of limbo since 2007, thanks to the apathy of successive governments.

“Emergency services are provided not only in the event of any calamity but in normal circumstances as well, round the year and round the clock … It is all the more surprising that a government in a disaster-prone region is unconcerned about strengthening its emergency services,” regrets Arif Bahar, a civil society activist.

“Perhaps as usual, we have left everything at the mercy of fate.”


Under funded, under-prepared

All 26 districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have been declared “disaster-prone” by the PDMA but is anyone listening?

By Zulfiqar Ali

The maps are all red, yellow and pink; earthquake, flood risk and landslide. Turn the page to chapters on the hazard and risk profile of these disasters, and district after district is rendered in the colour of crisis. This is the Road Map for Disaster Risk Management, 2014 -2019 published by the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

When it comes to disasters, the PDMA’s prognosis is that all 26 districts of the province are disaster prone; KP, it says, is “a province burdened with an alarming and diverse portfolio of natural and human-induced disasters, including an ongoing complex emergency.”

A decade ago, only 13 districts in the province were declared as disaster-prone; now, the entire province has been declared vulnerable in the context of hydro-metrological phenomenon and seismic activities.

KP is no stranger to natural and man-made disasters, of course. Nor is there any dearth of plans and strategies to deal with them on paper. But while the Road Map reinforces what has been established for a long time – often at the cost of tremendous suffering to people over the years – just where exactly do these plans translate into action is far from visible.

Take the early warning system, for example – a mechanism at the heart of any disaster response plan. Despite decades of disasters, the province still relies on manual gauging of complex weather systems.

Even today, there are no radar systems in KP despite a realisation that weather systems have turned highly volatile due to climate change. The situation calls for a web of well-coordinated, alert mechanisms to allow for quick and timely responses in the event of a disaster.

Officials say at least four radars are required for KP and adjacent tribal regions to collect accurate information about hydro-metrological phenomenon. As things stand, a radar system that was installed in the southern district of Dera Ismail Khan back in 1999 does not work. Installation of a new radar system, costing Rs 300 million, is on the cards in Mardan District.

Meanwhile, the British-era Seismic Centre in Peshawar, which has been serving as the central Met Office for KP and Fata since 1970, relies on conventional tools for issuing daily weather update to PDMA and other concerned departments.

“When we map the disasters over the last 15 years, we see an alarming rise in the incidence of hydro-metrological phenomena — rain, floods, storms, droughts and cyclones etc,” says Mushtaq Ali Shah, director of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Meteorological Department.

A recent example of this is the twister (mini-cyclone) that wrecked havoc in the three districts of Peshawar, Nowshera and Charsadda on April 26, 2015, the first ever such occurrence in the history of the province.

But while it is notoriously hard — almost impossible — to predict twisters, the authorities couldn’t gauge the speed of the devastating twister in the worst affected areas either, because the facilities required were simply not available in Peshawar and other parts of the province.

The Met office recorded the speed of the twister at 110 kilometres per hour that killed 49 people, wounded 267 others and damaged around 1,600 houses within a few minutes.“The speed of the twister might be more than 110 kilometres per hour in the worst-affected area, [but we can’t be sure] because the department has no equipment in these particular areas,” says Shah.

Experts say that natural calamities could not be prevented and can happen anytime, but losses could be minimised to a greater extent by developing proper disaster risk-management plans and strategies.

“We can see uneven events during the past 10 to 15 years. Changes in the intensity and occurrence of hydro-meteorological phenomenon are clearly visible in Pakistan,” says the Met office director.

Indeed, there has been no let up in natural disasters striking KP over the past two decades: a windstorm at the speed of 120 kilometres per hour hit Dera Ismail Khan in 1999; 200mm rainfall was reported in Balakot (Hazara) in 2003; flash floods in Karak in 2004; earthquake in 2004; devastating earthquake in 2005; flash floods in Mardan in August 2006; flash floods in 2007; flash floods in Peshawar in 2008; and super floods in Malakand in 2010.

Major disasters that struck KP during the past 15 years claimed lives of over 30,685 people and damaged infrastructure worth billions of rupees. Infrastructure in affected areas of Hazara and Malakand divisions has not been reconstructed fully, while floods, avalanches and land sliding have become a routine phenomenon in Hazara, Malakand and southern districts of KP and Fata.

Despite the earthquake in 2005, it seems that lessons have not been learnt on how cope with medium and high category calamities.

Much of the headway that has been taking place in the province has come thanks to some foreign donors, who provided technical and financial assistance to the provincial government to build institutional and legal frameworks.

GIZ, the German donor agency, provided assistance to the government for building the headquarters of PDMA, to set up Rescue 1122, and to build the Centre for Disaster Preparedness and Management (CDPM) at the University of Peshawar. The centre is now offering courses from diploma to doctorate levels.

“The earthquake in 2005 was an eye-opener for us,” remarks Mushtaq Ahmad Jan, director of the CDPM. “We have so many plans and strategies on paper, but they have not been implemented to minimise impacts of natural calamities.”

Jan explains that after the 2005 earthquake, new building codes were designed but these regulations were not even followed properly in the public sector. “Under the new building codes every concrete structure would be designed to resist earthquakes up to a magnitude of nine on the Richter Scale,” he says.

The CDPM director suggests that KP requires the most modern early warning system, proper land zoning, and a well-equipped Rescue 1122 service in all districts, but especially in high-risk zones. Unfortunately, he claims, the private sector, especially in Peshawar where multi-storey buildings are constructed, does not follow building codes. “Even fire fighting provisions are not installed in these buildings,” he says.

Despite many shortcomings, Jan sees improvement in the profile of KP and says that buildings in the earthquake-affected areas have been constructed according to the new codes. Similarly, the PDMA, which was established in 2008, has planned many activities to promote enhanced disaster preparedness and management. The Road Map for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2014-19 has been developed to identify and strategically plan for the urgent needs in disaster risk management.

Warehouses have been established in headquarters of all districts for storing emergency supplies. Disaster management units at the district level have been set up and assistant commissioners have been delegated additional powers of district disaster management officers. Seminars and workshops are also being organised to create awareness among general public.

But ultimately, in the absence of its own early warning system, the authority looks handicapped.

“A proposal is under consideration to request donors to help the provincial government get its own early warning system,” claims Latif-ur-Rehman, media and communication specialist at the PDMA.

If the scheme goes ahead, KP will no longer be forced to rely on the “poorly-equipped” federal meteorological department.


Forewarned is forearmed

With Punjab perennially vulnerable to floods, an early warning system in Lahore issues flood advice on an hourly basis

By Irfan Aslam

Photo by Arif Ali/White Star
Photo by Arif Ali/White Star

On Lahore’s Jail Road, opposite the Lahore College for Women University, a Doppler radar sticks out like a landmark. The radar is erected upon a tower which hosts the monitoring staff of the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD). Their job: update data on any development in weather patterns across the region every 30 minutes.

This is the PMD’s Flood Forecasting Division (FFD), one of the six specialised early warning centres operated by the Pakistan government.

A narrow flight of stairs leads to the monitoring room which houses about 12 staff members, most of them working on computers to keep an eye on any new development in weather patterns. They gauge these developing weather patterns through satellite images and data provided by the radars in case of rainfall. The Met Office staff works round the clock.

“The radars show only how much rainfall has occurred, they don’t give any predictions. The rain forecast is made through the analysis of satellite images that are received online,” explains Chief Meteorologist Akram Anjum.

Photo by Arif Ali/White Star
Photo by Arif Ali/White Star

Doppler radars, which exist only in Lahore and Mangla, tell the direction of the weather system while the other radars in Sialkot, Rahimyar Khan, Dera Ismail Khan and Karachi provide information regarding rainfall.

“We keep an eye on the weather pattern; when any new pattern develops in the Bay of Bengal and reaches Rajasthan (India), we monitor whether it would cross over to Punjab or if it would move towards Delhi. It takes six or seven days to reach Pakistan from its point of origin (Bay of Bengal) and it is monitored on a day-to-day basis,” says the chief meteorologist.

He adds that a warning is issued immediately if the weather pattern having rain heads towards Pakistan from India.

Last year, the FFD had issued a flood warning on Sept 3 that a flood situation was expected from Sept 5 to 7, and 250 officials from various government departments concerned were faxed. “The flood warning is updated on a hourly basis while the flood situation is updated on a daily basis,” says Anjum.

“India has the right over water in two of the rivers, the Sutlej and the Ravi, and the flood situation in them depends on India releasing water into them. Indian officials have to inform us before releasing water, and they do take care of that,” says the chief meteorologist, adding that it takes two and a half days to reach the Sutlej flood in Pakistani plains.

Photo by Arif Ali/White Star
Photo by Arif Ali/White Star

“In my 17 years of service, India never released water into the Ravi as it has dams on the river on their side. Whatever water comes in the Ravi in the rainy season comes from nullahs in India that come after the dams,” claims another official.

In routine and in emergency situations, the FFD also coordinates with the Punjab Irrigation Department and Wapda.

“The Irrigation Department sends data every six hours or even on hourly basis in a flood situation, which is shared with Wapda that has a small section in the Met Office,” explains Anjum.

Besides the online systems, one staff member works away diligently on paper, maintaining a weather chart and keeping it updated. “The manual system is kept as security; what if there is some issue with the online system when we are in the midst of an emergency? As a routine, we have been using the online system for decades now,” says the chief meteorologist.

Talking about recent rain devastation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Anjum describes the cause as a tornado for which, he says, no forecasts can be made. Had it been rain or even a dust storm, the Met Office could have predicted it earlier.

Anjum dispelled the impression that in Pakistan, forecasts regarding floods are not given at a proper time, which in turn causes devastation at a massive level.

“Floods can’t be stopped, they can only be managed to keep the losses to a minimum. Floods happen when rivers receive water beyond their capacity and the extra water can be managed through dams and other water reservoirs,” argues Anjum.

“The rain forecast is correct more than 90 per cent of the times because it is based on scientific methods. Clouds are monitored when they are 400km away, and satellite images and data is fed into models (software) that show their position on a day to day basis for the next seven days,” he says.

Suddenly, a power outage cuts short our conversation. The staff too stops working, as all of them, except one, were working on computers. It turns out, tragically so, that the floods early warning system has backup power supply only in the “floods season.”


Mother Nature’s guide to weather forecasting

No fancy gadgets, no satellite systems ... these are techniques passed down through generations in Sindh’s indigenous communities to predict the weather on which so much depends

By Amar Guriro

In March, as the crow breeding season begins, fisherfolk of the Indus Delta get busy counting their eggs.

“If the crows lay more than three eggs, the monsoons will bring good rains,” explains 50-year-old social activist Shafi Murgher from a small town of the delta in district Thatta. “But if they lay seven eggs, it means torrential rains will bring flash floods and devastation.”

These aren’t any arbitrary rules of weather forecasting; this is indigenous Sindhi folk wisdom passed down from generation to generation, and derived from the surrounding environment of any particular area. In its details, therefore, this unique indigenous forecasting system differs from region to region.

With lives dependent on weather changes, this system of weather forecasting helps rural folk and serves as a code of life. It helps people prepare for disasters, decide whether to migrate, tell if it’s time to till the land in preparation for rainfall, whether it’s safe to go fishing into the open seas, or simply which crop to grow.

The indigenous weather forecasting system defies convention: while it is usually believed that there are only four seasons in a year and each season comprises three months, rural communities in Sindh divide the year into six seasons, with each season comprising two months. This division makes predicting weather “easy” for them.

Forecasts are based on certain changes in the wind direction and clouds; alterations in the sea, special occurrences in the moon, the sun or stars; as well as the movements or behavioural changes of birds, insects, wild animals, pets, livestock, reptiles and amphibians. Plant phenology is also employed to forecast weather.

In many parts of rural Sindh, fisherfolk, farmers, herders, masons and even potters do not trust the weather forecast advisory issued by public departments through the media. Their belief and reliance in this old system is near absolute: daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal forecasting for routine and special activities all revolve around this ancestral system.

“The Arabian Sea has different colours,” says Murgher, “and sometimes, it changes colour to light black. That indicates something bad in the sea. If fisherfolk in Thatta and Badin find lots of fish or cetaceans in the creeks of the Indus, they prefer not to go on long-haul fishing trips as they feel that bad weather or a storm is brewing in the sea. When they are in the open seas, they can estimate the onset of turbulent weather or storms around 24 hours earlier.”

Sindh has seven major climatic regions: Thar Desert, Achhro Thar or White Desert, Nara Desert, Kachho, Kohistan, Laar or southern Sindh, and Wicholo or middle Sindh that is part of Indus eco-region. Except Wicholo and some portions of Laar, most of these regions are arid or semi-arid, and also completely dependent on rain.

Despite being able to predict all types of weather, rural communities’ primary expertise became rain forecasting since their immediate surroundings and fortunes were dependant on rainfall.

“Earthquakes aren’t frequent and communities have not witnessed any major earthquake in the recent past, neither in Thar nor in other parts of the province. Earthquakes weren’t their concern, and therefore, indigenous knowledge to predict earthquakes could not be built,” explains Bharumal Amrani, a social activist from Tharparkar district.

Similar is the case with coastal communities: nobody seems to have found signs in nature to predict the occurrence of a tsunami.

“Our forefathers told us that only once in reported history has a tsunami hit Sindh’s coastal areas. But since that is not happening often, communities didn’t create any skills for that purpose,” says Murgher.

And yet, as Murgher explains, the people of Laar consider wind as a strong tool in matters of weather prediction.

In the months of June, July and August, if the southerly wind becomes hot, this means a storm or cyclone will emerge in the next few hours. But if there is torrential monsoon rain and suddenly the southerly wind starts, this means that rainfall will stop in the next one hour.

Quoting a local proverb about the importance of wind in indigenous weather forecasting, Murgher says: “The wisdom is Kara kakar, thadra waa, dhor wikani khao [If there are black cloud and cold winds, sell your livestock and buy food]. Before the monsoons, whenever there is a south westerly wind, villagers know that there will be no rain in the coming season and drought is imminent.”

Far removed from the coastal areas, Aachar Bheel, an elderly resident of a remote village in Thar, is nearly certain that there will be abundant rains in the coming season — enough to end the ongoing drought in the desert.

“Right after spring, when summer starts with hot days and there is plenty of Singar, the fruit of Kandi tree, and also if in this season there is plenty of fruit in the wild Peelu tree and the wild flower blooms in this season, this means more rain in the coming monsoon,” explains Bheel.

In places like Thar and for men like Bheel, indigenous weather forecasts allow them to gather information about the coming season earlier so that they can prepare their fields for rain. Costs incurred on preparing the land and buying agriculture inputs are high — if the weather forecast goes wrong, these poor communities have to pay huge sums to recover. If and when drought hits the region, the costs to survive will only swell.

In very real terms, getting a forecast wrong is a matter of life and death.

“When Tharis find entire colonies of ants leave home and queue to move to a safer place, they know that rain is coming in the next two days,” explains Amrani. “If a cow has dust on its back and while walking it stops and tilts its head towards the sky, it means that it will rain in the next 24 hours.”

Then there is the unusual sight of local snakes climbing trees (which they normally don’t); this too is a way of forecasting rain. The same is the case with big carpenter ants, when they come out of their colonies and start climbing trees.

In Thar, when someone witnesses house sparrows bathing in sand, they will be certain that there will be rain in the next three days. In late May, when locals find peafowls suddenly losing their trains, this too means that rain is around the corner.

Morning dew is also another indicator: early morning dew means no rainfall in the next 24 hours. In February and March, if morning dew continues to fall for many days, there will be no rainfall in the next season and the area will witness drought. In the month of May, if water kept in an earthen pot becomes hot, that means there will be good rain in next monsoon.

Villagers also keep an eye on the formation of clouds in late June or early July. If they find thin cirrus (bird feather-like white clouds), they know that there will be heavy rains after 10 to 15 days. The same clouds but with a heavier density means torrential rains in the next three or four days.

If the moon is surrounded by light clouds, it is likely to drizzle in the next few days or receive some light rain. But this rainfall will continue for many days.

During the monsoons, the appearance of a green grasshopper means a healthy crop. But if locals see a termite, they take it to mean that there will be a good harvest but food shortage will still take place. Also in the same season, if there is light rain which is then followed by lots of dragonflies, this means that the village needs to prepare for lots of mosquitoes in the coming days and also that light rain or drizzling will continue for the next few days.

“When stray dogs start howling like jackals at night, this means an epidemic or some other disaster is approaching towards the village,” says Amrani. “But in winter, when stray dogs start mating, locals understand that to mean an intense cold wave will hit the area.”

Many residents of Thar, Acchro Thar and Laar also believe that during the monsoon season, even if there are no clues about rain but if frogs suddenly start croaking at night, there will be rainfall in the next 24 hours. The more the frogs croak, the more rain is expected.

Besides plant phenology and movements of animals and insects, rural communities also watch the movements of celestial objects (the sun, moon and stars) for weather forecasting. For people of the Thar Desert, White Desert and Laar area of Sindh, a clear halo around the moon or sun means that there will be rain in the next few days. If the halo is filled with some clouds, it means a dust storm before rain.

Here, locals also consult Hindu pundits about weather forecasting. These pundits, with the help of Hindu astrology books, check different Nakhstras or stars, including Rohini, Mrigashir, Magha, Purva Phalguni, Uttara Phalguni etc. They then predict the weather on the basis of the birth of these stars at certain times, their position, and the symbol of the animals which these stars ride with during the year.

Maharaj Nihalchand Giyanchandani, eminent Hindu pundit from Sanghar district, is said to be an expert of these celestial predictions. “This year, there won’t be the same rain in all regions; in some areas, it will be more and in others, none at all. There are also possibilities of a disaster coming from the sea; it can be a cyclone, storm or something else but it will hit the coastal areas of Sindh and Balochistan,” says Giyanchandani in an interview over telephone.

Amar Guriro is a Karachi-based environmental journalist. He tweets @AmarGuriro

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 24th, 2015

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