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4th report (eye witness)

Safia Awan Eye witness in Muzaffarabad

Safia Awan, SOS Vice President in Pakistan

This report was emailed a week after the earthquake.

A Major requested me to go on the reconnaissance mission to Muzaffarrabad four hours after they arrived. As the helicopter began its descent, there was an unfamiliar pungent odour in the air, and then there was a strange flavour in my mouth. I had heard the expression "the scent of death" before but I never really knew what they meant. There was a slight burning sensation in my eyes...that must have been due to the dust in the air.

The base is a helipad that used to be in front of the old secretariat, now just rubble. There were tents set up around the helipad with hundreds of soldiers and wounded survivors. Helicopters were landing and taking off at short intervals of a few minutes. The skies above were filled with strange clouds of dust replacing the previous crisp clean air of the valley and flocks of birds.

The Colonel in charge of the base in Muzaffarabad categorically told me that he would not allow me to go off the base. I insisted and he still refused, saying “Madam, this is not for you to see.” I told him that over the past four years I had spent a lot of time in this city and I had laid the first brick at the SOS Village. He said, “I know ma’am. I have been to the SOS Village, that is why I don’t want you to go.” I saw two UN cars parked next to us, so I told the colonel that I would just get in the car and drive myself. At this point he consented to my request. We were provided with the General’s jeep and driver.

I had told the team of four soldiers that I knew a perfect place where they could install two of their plants. They required flat land near water and if possible next to a filtration plant. From the SOS Village there was a clear view of a flat strip of land next to the soothing blue water of the Nelum River, near the university of AJ&K. The area I had in mind was a cricket field where I would often watch children playing. I had also visited the filtration plant below when we were trying to establish the water source for our SOS Village.

We proceeded towards the SOS Village. The busy shops and streets filled with the hustle and bustle of the daily activities of life were no more; within a matter of seconds everything had been altered and replaced... massive amounts of debris...which are now the headstones of thousands and thousands of people. On the side of the streets there were some cars buried under huge boulders and rubble. I had the jeep stop at one place where I saw a few soldiers and an earth-moving crane. I got out to take pictures of the activity and the locals standing by wearing surgical masks. I began to gag so I walked in a different direction, but the stench of death became even stronger. We don’t need sniffing dogs to find bodies; they are everytwhere. As the stench gets stronger you realize there must just be more bodies buried in that particular area. I could not watch any longer.

As we drove I tried to identify a house SOS had rented for our staff when we first started building the Village. I could not even identify the street. It is all just one massive collection of rubble. We drove by the Civil Military Hospital (CMH) and all I could see was colossal debris. It is all gone. As we approached the street leading up to our Village we stopped and got out, I showed the soldiers the cricket ground which now had a few army tents and was being used as a small helipad. They said it seemed perfect and I suggested they go up to the Village and see a better aerial view from there.

We drove up to the entrance of the approach road to our Village. The heavy barrier had fallen and large boulders had blocked the entrance, so we made our way from under it. I looked ahead and saw the previously strong retaining walls collapsed at certain points. The road had waves every forty feet or so. My first view was that of the school. The stairs leading up to it had pretty much collapsed. The school building was leaning towards one side. It was, nevertheless, still standing. More, sadly, than can be said for the other schools in the region.

As we continued our walk around another bend I saw the mountains had formed other mountains; the once strong invisible mountains were altered in shape and size. To the left I saw the roofs of two houses where our neighbors used to live. I was confused and couldn’t get my bearings. Then I saw our Administration block. I tried to figure out what my eyes were viewing. The ground floor was still there, but where were the other two floors? I felt at home as I saw all other buildings still standing, damaged but still standing - even the double story units looked strong, structurally damaged but strong. I went into one of the houses and walked around. As we walked out I asked the staff to open the door of the generator room so that I could see the condition of our 100 KVA generator. The generator room is on the side of the administration block so it was covered with debris. The generator may be useable. We walked down and proceeded to the air base.

The chopper that had brought us was at the base and during our reconnaissance drive of two hours the captain had flown four sorties. The colonel on the base said, “Now do you know why I wanted you not to go?” I was at a loss for words. I then discussed the procedure the Army and SOS would follow in order to take in all unaccompanied children and women with little children. Later today I will write the procedure and issue it to the concerned Army and Government personnel and copy the communication to you.

We then got in the chopper, what I felt cannot be explained. As we took off I tried to figure out where the pilot was going. It seemed as if he was going in the opposite direction to Islamabad. The captain signaled me and pointed down to the left. He flew us around the SOS site about five times. Then we kept flying in the wrong direction. I looked around and tried to get my bearings, but all I could see was collapsed homes, villages and villages of debris. Where were we and where are all the people I had expected to see below us? I kept looking out for the slightest human activity and found none. Where were all the people? How did they get out...the roads around had all collapsed. Where were the people? Then it struck me: they are all dead!!!

The chopper started to descend into an area where there were two Army tents. A score of people ran towards the chopper. Men, women and children with their loved ones dying in their arms. The crew brought five people on board and the others ran back as the chopper began to lift. There was one teenage boy with a very old man on his shoulders; there was no room for them. I looked in the boy’s eyes and saw just blankness…total emptiness. On his face was an expression of fear and desperation; but in his eyes no feeling was left. The others standing with their wounded children in their arms watched as we flew away. Then we landed at the main base in Muzaffarabad. The wounded were removed and we took off again. We went back for more. I can’t remember if we did two or three sorties. All I know is that there were some left behind. I kept looking for people anywhere...nothing...they must all be dead.

We then flew back to Islamabad with two wounded children and two wounded women, one of whom had lost feeling in her legs. As they closed the chopper doors I held her feet back so that she would not be hurt. She had no feeling so she would not have even known if the doors had hurt her feet. Now the stench of death was combined with the pungent smell of urine and blood.

There were three relatives of the wounded traveling with them. I asked the young boy with the paraplegic women what he did; he told me he was a student. I handed him some money. He refused. I put it in his pocket. I then also gave the other attendants the remaining money I had. I didn’t know how else I could help. At least I knew that they would now be able to feed themselves for a week.

All that man plans...all that man creates...destroyed in seconds...all gone...all dead!!!

I want to express to all who read this e-mail that the devastation and destruction is beyond our most horrific imagination. The colossal magnitude of the situation is beyond all comprehension. The Pakistan Army is handling the situation to the best of their ability within the resources available to them; they are doing all that is humanly possible. When I asked one of the pilots how he continues to see what he does day after day; he said:

“It is the first bullet that kills you, after that you are dead”


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