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Last Updated: Monday, 9 October 2006, 22:48 GMT 23:48 UK
Quake survivors still struggle
By Lucy Wilkins
BBC News

One year after the earthquake in the disputed territory of Kashmir which killed 75,000 people in Pakistan and India, one woman describes how the survivors are still struggling with their damaged lives.

Tent city
Thousands still live in tent cities one year after the quake
Naseem Akhtar lives in a house consisting of tarpaulin sheets strung up around what little remains of her home in the Pakistani village of Sangni Mehra.

A year ago, the mother-of-six was sitting on her veranda when the earth shook so violently it all but demolished her house.

The village, like much of the nearby city of Muzzafarabad, was almost flattened.

Naseem suffered a pelvis fracture and had to be airlifted to hospital miles away but, with phones and roads cut, it was six days before her sister in Leytonstone, east London, was finally able to find out if she was alive.

For that sister, Shaheen Akhtam, the relief was tempered by the loss of 16 relatives of her husband's family.

'Please help us'

Shaheen spoke to her niece in the village on the only working telephone in the days after the quake when it was still chaos all around.

"Can you imagine what it must have been like? Dead bodies all around and this child on the phone, saying 'please help us, auntie.' I told her to stay there and that help will come eventually."

Among those to die were Shaheen's mother-in-law, brother-in-law and his wife and baby, an aunt and a nephew.

Shaheen Akhtam
They have been through this for a whole year. It's like a disaster again, suffering constantly
Shaheen Akhtam

Twelve months later, tears run down her face as she describes the moment her husband found his sister beneath the debris.

He had spent three days removing rubble with just his hands and had almost given up hope, when he saw his sister's toe. He dug deeper.

There his sister lay, with her arms around her small baby. Both were dead.

"That's when he lost it," Shaheen says, her voice breaking as she folds her own arms over her chest as if cradling a child.

Her husband and a dozen or so people from the same area had flown to Pakistan when the scale of the devastation and their personal loss became apparent.

'The end of the world'

Shaheen said: "When I spoke to my sister after the quake she said it was like the end of world. She said: 'I've seen it, I've been through it.'"

A few months previously Shaheen had been to the village for a wedding and had left behind a large tarpaulin sheet to be used during the monsoon.

That became the only shelter for three rainy days - not only the family but their neighbours too.

"They had nothing, no money, no clothes, no food, not even tents, so as a family we got money together.

"My brother's friend took everything over for us, but even six weeks later there wasn't anything proper to sleep on."

A man after the quake in Muzzafarabad
About three million people were left homeless by the quake
Sitting in the offices of the Kashmir International Relief Fund, Shaheen is frustrated by the lack of help in the past 12 months.

The fund's chief executive officer, Ishfaq Ahmed, said that corruption had prevented suitable help from getting to people. Even builders were asking for bribes from families already bereft of all their belongings, and with limited grants with which they were supposed to get their homes built, he said.

The fund has raised 700,000 since the quake. From that they have given temporary shelters to 7,916 families in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.

For Shaheen's family, she said getting further official help was "like getting blood out of a stone".

Community spirit

"Corruption is high, but they are victims already - they don't want to have to deal with that too.

"They are really frustrated. They have been through this for a whole year. It's like a disaster again, suffering constantly."

"There's nobody to listen to them, no-one to complain to."

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has promised to investigate widespread allegations of corruption.

Even with the prospect of another winter in a house constructed from a tin roof and tarpaulin sides, with heavy snowfalls the norm, Shaheen's sister and family have no plans to move.

"They have no money to move or to buy land, and even if they did, where would they go?

"At least where they are they have community support, they can stick together," Shaheen said.


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