SITUATIONER: Quake-hit town wears the look of a devastated medieval settlement

Published October 8, 2021
Residents gather near a damaged house following an earthquake in Harnai, Balochistan, on Thursday. — Reuters
Residents gather near a damaged house following an earthquake in Harnai, Balochistan, on Thursday. — Reuters

“AIMAAL” (deeds) is the word one frequently comes across following an earthquake in the quake-prone Balochistan province. En route to Harnai district in northern Balochistan, this is what I heard from the driver of the vehicle I had hired. Driver Mohammad Mobeen kept on repeating it throughout the journey on the bumpy road. “Earthquake occurs due to our “Aimaal” because we are sinful Muslims,” he told me while driving, and he knows me as the “breaking news man”. “Instead of rectifying ourselves, we commit sins, which is why we have to face natural disasters such as earthquake.”

Mobeen is a self-opinionated person and a conversationalist. He does not provide me an opportunity to interrupt him. He has started his sermon after I asked him to turn on music during the tiresome journey. Instead of obeying me, he started giving me a lecture on “Aimaal”. After rubbing my eyes due to having had little sleep following the earthquake that jolted parts of Balochistan, including Quetta, and me, I acquiesce to be a good listener on how to rectify my deeds.

This handout photograph released by the National Disaster Management Authority shows people injured in the earthquake in Harnai being shifted into a Pakistan Army helicopter. — AFP
This handout photograph released by the National Disaster Management Authority shows people injured in the earthquake in Harnai being shifted into a Pakistan Army helicopter. — AFP

Harnai is a Pakhtun-dominated district in Balochistan’s northern region, marked by rampant poverty and stark backwardness. On the other hand, the district is replete with natural beauty and natural resources, including coal mines, but unfortunately, its residents are living in medieval ages. They live in mud houses and those houses were also snatched by the earthquake. Harnai was the epicenter of Thursday morning’s quake.

The Harnai valley does not only wear a desolate look but is also the picture of hopelessness and helplessness. Those mud houses which have not been demolished by the quake have developed cracks in their walls and become useless following the earthquake. Like the mud houses, there is a forlorn look on the faces of locals, worried about a bleak future in the days to come.

One of them is Nawab Khan Tareen, 35, from Baba Mohallah in Harnai town, a father of five children.

Like others, he was fast asleep in a room of his kutcha mud house when the earthquake of 5.9 magnitude awoke him with jolts. “Zalzala” (earthquake) was the word that promptly came to his mind, unconsciously, when he woke up. But he was fortunate enough that he and his children suffered some minor injuries. Coming out of his room, he saw that the walled courtyard of his mud house had collapsed and dust was rising in the darkness of the night. He heard shrieks of children and women coming from neighbouring houses.

Those screams spoke of death and destruction.

A destroyed house in Babu Mohallah, Harnai.
A destroyed house in Babu Mohallah, Harnai.

I sit for a chat with Nawab Khan while speaking to him about last night’s ordeal. “That earthquake awakened me at 3.01am. I came out of the room. There was destruction all around, including parts of my house.”

Like other volunteers, Nawab Khan left his home following the screams of children and women. “I retrieved five people out of the rubble — alive — while the sixth one was motionless — dead,” he recalls about rescue efforts he and other locals carried out on their own throughout the night. “Most of the victims we retrieved were trapped under the fallen roofs and demolished walls.”

Following the earthquake, there was breakdown of electricity supply so most of the victims were recovered in the light of mobile phone torches, amid chaos.

The district headquarters hospital in Harnai is situated at some distance from Babu Mohallah. Like other health facilities of Balochistan, the Harnai hospital does not have medicines and lacks basic facilities. In the words of locals, one cannot find Ponstan tablet there on common days, so getting treatment after an emergency situation like earthquake is a distant idea. Notwithstanding the fact that there are no facilities in the hospital, locals like Nawab Khan rushed to the hospital with the injured.

“Paramedics were present at the hospital but they could only give first aid,” he recalls in front of his house which turned into rubble. “That is why we sent the injured to Quetta in private vehicles provided by volunteers along with three ambulances.”

Nevertheless, according to Mobeen, nature has showed mercy for the good deeds of the Harnai people as “only few of the injured have died”.

Published in Dawn, October 8th, 2021

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