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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 October 2005, 06:22 GMT 07:22 UK
Killer quake's 'nowhere children'

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir

Zafar Khan
Zafar's family has not been in touch

There is nobody to take five-year-old Zafar Khan home when doctors declare him fit to leave the dank and smelly hospital ward that has been his home for the past week.

The medics have very few clues about the family of this wounded boy who was airlifted to a hospital in Srinagar, summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, from his quake devastated village in Uri.

What they do know from some of the boy's neighbours who are attending to their injured relatives in the same hospital is that Zafar's father died in last Saturday's earthquake which razed Dalanja village in Uri to the ground.

They also know that Zafar's mother is nearly blind and largely immobile, and that the boy has two brothers who are called Sajjad and Nissar.

That is where Zafar's story ends.

Dealing with grief

The psychologists from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) attending to him are not asking him any more questions, in case the boy goes into shock.

I want to go home. Home is better
Zafar Khan

People drop into the hospital ward and gift Zafar colourful playthings - a plastic hockey stick, plastic balls, crayons, colouring books, even fancy shades.

Doctors have put Zafar's bed next to two brothers, Imtiaz, 12 and Ishtiaq, six, neighbours and playmates from the same village, who are now recovering in the same ward.

The brothers got hurt when their house collapsed on them. Imtiaz has a fractured leg, and Ishtiaq hurt his head and swam in and out of consciousness keeping doctors on tenterhooks for the first few days.

A week later, the three boys are getting better, and even playing mock hockey games with their plastic toys on their hospital beds.

Imtiaz, says a counsellor, is dealing with grief directly. He says one of his sisters is dead, his friends are dead, elders are dead - without betraying much emotion.

Zafar is the most playful of the lot, humming rhymes, singing songs and even putting on the black plastic shades to impress visitors.

Shaida Bano
Shaida has drawn her experience

"I want to go home. Home is better," he says smiling weakly.

While his ward mates, Imtiaz and Ishtiaq, will certainly go home in the near future with their father, Zafar may have nobody to go with.

A week after the quake, no relative has arrived at the hospital to claim the boy and be with him.

"The hospital is planning to send him to a youth hostel if nobody comes to claim him after he recovers," says Arooj, a MSF volunteer, who spends time with Zafar.

Zafar Khan is one of the killer quake's many nowhere children, who face distressingly uncertain futures.

Learning to write

Fate could not have been crueller to 15-year-old Mumtaz Ahmed and his seven-year-old sister Rubeena, who have been left holding each other.

You had a problem with your arm, sister. So the doctors had to cut it off
Mumtaz Ahmed

They became orphans when both their parents died of illnesses in a matter of months in the past two years.

The loss of parents meant that Mumtaz, the eldest of six siblings, including a disabled sister, took care of a family of children.

He worked as a daily wage labourer and ran the small family farm to make ends meet. At least, the orphaned family had a roof over their heads.

Last week, the quake swallowed their house and left Rubeena severely wounded with a crushed right hand.

Six days after she was airlifted to the hospital, accompanied by Mumtaz, the doctors amputated her right hand after it began rotting.

"You had a problem with your arm, sister. So the doctors had to cut it off," Mumtaz told his sister when she came out of the anaesthesia and began sobbing quietly on seeing her right arm gone.

He has also given Rubeena some paper on which the pained girl has already begun to scribble the alphabet using her left hand.

"Look, she is already using her left hand!" says Mumtaz.

Week-long search

The penniless orphans are too dazed to think about the future and the fate of their four siblings who may or may not have survived the quake.

"My siblings must be in the farm. They must have camped there. I don't really know," says Mumtaz.

Majaz, a quake victim
Majaz, six, is still hoping his parents will turn up

A local bank gave him $23 to meet some expenses; the government, of course, has still not come with any help.

So where does he take his sister back to when she recovers?

"I don't know. I need a tent to house my siblings and look after them. If I don't get one, maybe I will build a small bunker," says Mumtaz.

Other children like Ifra Lone, 10, and her sister Tabassum, 14, are luckier - there is somebody in the family by their side.

Airlifted out of their Tangdhar village with head, back and leg injuries after the quake, they were looking like becoming nowhere children until their uncle turned up at the hospital yesterday after a week-long search.

They also found out that another sister Faizana, 9, is recovering from injuries in another hospital with their father by her side.

Other children like eight-year-old Bilal Ali Khan and his brother Majaz, six, from Tangdar, are still waiting to meet their parents, but keep their spirits up by doodling on notebooks.

Miracle recovery

In a neighbouring bed, Shaida Bano, 12, has even drawn a picture of the quake in her mind - a house shaking and a man with body parts showing, straight out of a junior school biology book.

Altaf and his mother Taaja
Altaf is now on the mend

Or 12-year-old Riaz Ahmed who has managed to write a short story in Urdu about his quake experiences from his hospital bed.

"I had to write it because I was so scared. I feel scared even now when they move the hospital bed," he says.

There is some flickering reaffirmation of life in the middle of death in the gloomy hospital wards too.

When seven-year-old Mohammed Altaf was taken out of the debris of his family house in Uri and airlifted to the hospital, he was in a coma.

His mother, Taaja, who came with him, was in shock, having lost her 15-day-old daughter in the rubble, and her son sinking fast.

A week later, Altaf has recovered miraculously. He is saluting and grinning at visitors and his mother is happy to take him back to their tent home.

"I am happy to go back now," says Taaja.

Zafar Khan may never have that luxury.


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