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Hope freezes for Kashmir's 'quake children'

A year after the devastating tremor, the impact of last October's quake is still apparent on J&K children.

india Updated: Dec 06, 2006 10:39 IST

They say that children are more resilient than adults. But a year after the 7.6 temblor flattened parts of Uri and Keran in Baramulla district and Tanghdar tehsil in Kupwara district, the impact of last October's earthquake is still apparent on children.

One year later, hidden fears still surface in inexplicable fits of crying, rage and bouts of insecurity, reports Grassroots Features.

Fifteen-year-old Shamima Bano's parents died in the earthquake. Now in a home for destitute children, she cannot sleep at night until the home's caretaker Shahnaz Bibi reassures her, sometimes for hours, that her parents have gone to paradise.

Figures available from Jammu and Kashmir's relief and rehabilitation department say that nearly 3,000 children were affected directly by the earthquake that caused the death of 1,308 people. These children have either lost both or one of their parents or siblings, have been injured, or have had their homes and schools reduced to rubble in a matter of seconds.

On paper there are 710 orphans. In Kashmir a child is also considered to be an orphan if it loses his father. The figure of those indirectly affected by the killer quake is anybody's guess.

Across the Line of Control (LoC), the havoc was far greater. An estimated 73,000 people died from the earthquake with its epicentre in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan administered Kashmir, and 125 kms away from Srinagar. On both sides of the border a total of over 3.5 million people have been displaced.

Either way, this shared tragedy has turned the world of children upside down. Not that it has been right side up in the Kashmir Valley for the past 17 years. Consumed by terrorism since 1989, generations of children have grown up knowing only bomb blasts, insurgency and seen their sylvan surroundings overrun by security forces.

"With this as a background, children in the Valley are finding it much more difficult to cope with the aftermath of a natural disaster like an earthquake. At its most basic level, in a strongly religious society like Kashmir, they tend to believe that they are being punished for something they have done," says Professor Bashir Dabla, a sociologist from Kashmir University.

His research focuses on the social impact of terrorism, and he is now examining the aftermath of the quake.

It's a fact. Ask 12-year-old Rubaiya, studying in Class 6, who barely speaks above a whisper. As of last November, she lives in a home run by the state for destitute girls in Kupwara. The yellow painted building houses 85 girls ranging from the ages of four to 15. Of them, 45 have been impacted by the earthquake.

Down the road, her nine-year-old brother stays in a similar home for boys. Wearing her school uniform, grey kameez and white salwar, her angelic frail face framed by a white scarf, Rubaiya resolutely refuses to raise her eyes. In a barely audible voice she recalls the horrors of that day.

Together with her brother she was walking to school, a little distracted because she had an examination that day. Suddenly the siblings felt a roar beneath their feet. Thinking that a grenade or bomb had exploded, the two ran for the protective cover of a massive Chinar tree. It was only when they were being flung around by the heaving and gasping earth, and someone shouted zalzala (earthquake), that they turned to look at their home.

Before their eyes the stone structure collapsed, entombing their mother, paternal grandmother and two younger other siblings. Their father, a casual labourer, who had gone to pick up work from the Border Security Organisation, was also killed.

Today, Rubaiya is convinced that the earth opened up for a reason: that she didn't say her prayers regularly enough, or that she is not a good child. Now she prays constantly and is determined to her keep her first Roza, believing that fasting for a month will ward off the possibility of another calamity.

It's a thought that finds resonance in most other homes and orphanages like Tabussum Besara. The children at this orphanage dislike the thought of going back home because of the bad memories, so they pray. Their teacher, Ruman, tries to draw them out by asking them to talk about the quake, but it's hard.

"One day they will chat and the next they will keep quiet, and I am back to square one," she says despairingly.

Even to the untrained eye it is obvious that, one year after the quake, specialised counselling is still urgently needed for the more vulnerable groups like women and children. Normally dependent on traditional coping systems like families and kinship structures, without them they are completely emotionally disoriented.

"Innovative strategies are required to reduce the sense of loss and make this generation look forward to a happy future," says Arjuman Hussein Talib, Kashmir director of Action Aid whose relief work has focused on women and children. "Community care projects are vital".

But resources are limited. Nobody has time to look at the finer points of emotional rehabilitation—not the victims, the state, private caretakers nor the assorted NGOs still working here. They are simply too busy making ends meet, ensuring meals and adequate shelter.

The government takes comfort in the thought it has disbursed Rs4 billion ($89.8 million) as cash relief. Of this, Rs100,000 is to be given to those who have completely lost their homes, in one instalment of Rs40,000 and another two of Rs30,000. But the compensation is not enough for those who lost their families, homes and livelihood in three minutes.

A year later, as another bitter winter draws near in this Himalayan land, hope is rapidly fading. At the end of the day, no one is really sure whether the dead or those left behind have suffered more. It is not only a question of money. Social roles have reversed, children have had to grow up overnight, and women who traditionally stayed at home to look after children now have to work because either they have lost their husbands or they need to supplement meagre incomes.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Rehana living in Chakra village in Uri, some 100 kms from Srinagar, lost her husband last October when he was hit by a boulder leaving her with six children. Touching 30 herself, she is going to marry off her 16-year-old eldest daughter to a 32-year-old widower in Sultandaki.

She could have married off her second eldest daughter, Naheed, too, given that that there was a marriage proposal. But there is no money to do that. Besides, she needs Naheed to look after her younger brothers and sisters, as Rehana goes out looking for work.

First Published: Dec 06, 2006 08:54 IST