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Last Updated: Friday, 14 October 2005, 11:30 GMT 12:30 UK
Tale of the last survivor
By Tom Coghlan and Imtiaz Ali in Balakot

Family of Shameer Shah Jehan (C) in Balakot
Shameer Shah Jehan (C) survived 63 hours in an air pocket. Photos: Veronique de Vigeurie
When his French rescuers lifted five-year-old Shameer Shah Jehan free he was naked and silent, his clothes torn off by falling debris.

He had been under the rubble of the Shaheen Foundation School in the devastated Pakistani town of Balakot for 63 hours.

Shameer was the last survivor to be pulled from the wreck of the school, one of scores that collapsed on their pupils in Saturday's earthquake.

Around 350 children are thought to have died in the Shaheen Foundation School.

In the hours after the earthquake desperate parents clawed at the rubble.

Cries could be heard from within the building - a three-storey structure perched on the hillside above Balakot which had pancaked as the quake struck.

But without heavy lifting equipment, few of the surviving children could be reached.

Improvised tent

"It is a whole generation that has been lost in the worst affected areas," said Pakistani military spokesman, Gen Shaukat Sultan, on Sunday.

Rescue team in Balakot
Rescuers sift through the wreckage in Balakot

A day later, at 2300 local time, Shameer Shah Jehan was found, the last of five children pulled out alive by the French search and rescue team that arrived in Balakot on Monday.

He now lives in a tent improvised from a sheet and bamboo poles a few hundred metres from the school, surrounded by what remains of his family.

Four of his aunts and uncles are dead. His cousin and best friend, Erbab, died beside him in the rubble.

It is estimated that 10,000 bodies lie under the rubble of Balakot. About 90% of buildings were flattened.

To reach his new home, Shameer walks along the corrugated iron roof of what was once a shopping centre, but has now become a major thoroughfare through the rubble.

Shameer is largely silent, his eyes wide with shock. His body is covered in grazes but he is otherwise miraculously unscathed.

Crushed into a ball

"We were trying to reach three boys who were in one pocket together," said J-J Mornat, commander of the French rescue team as he waited to be airlifted from the town.

After such sadness I forgot my dead sons and daughters when I got this one back
Shameer's grandfather

"The local people could hear those three and even pass drinks to them through a small hole, but they couldn't reach them because they didn't have the right equipment."

"We freed those three but we couldn't find any sign of life in the next pocket. We were about to leave when he cried out.

"That little boy was crushed into a space that fitted him perfectly. The two children on either side were dead. He had his arms around his head and when we pulled him he came out like a cork. None of his limbs had been crushed, otherwise he would have been very hard to extract."

Shameer told his parents that he could hear cries around him in the darkness that followed the collapse of the building. He lay crushed into a ball and unable to move.

Balakot school
Fathers know hope has faded for any surviving children in Balakot

He says he heard his 22-year-old teacher, Miss Kenza, shouting that she was alive, but as the hours passed the shouts stopped.

The French doubt that it could have been Miss Kenza who Shameer heard. They believe she died instantly.

"Her body was covering two children," said Mr Mornat. "The first was dead but the second was alive. We think that she died trying to shield them as the building collapsed."

"Shameer told us there was darkness except for one tiny light," said his mother, as his surviving family crowded around him.

"After such sadness I forgot my dead sons and daughters when I got this one back," said his grandfather, stroking his hair.

"He said he drank water under there, but it must be a miracle because there was no water there," said his mother.

Shameer did not sleep throughout his experience, he said. Asked what he thought about in the 63 hours he spent under the rubble, he shook his head.

"For three days I wept for my son," said his mother. "When he was found there was no limit to my joy. The French lifted him out so gently."

On Wednesday a rescue team from the United Arab Emirates made a further search of the school as the fathers of children still missing sat on the hillside above. They did not find any alive.


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