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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Running in full circles

I was in Karachi then too - on this very day, seven years ago. On my way back after completing a degree, I'd made a brief stopover of a few days to spend some time with a friend whose wedding I'd been unable to attend while at university. The flight home to Islamabad was scheduled on the morning of October 8th, 2005, but I changed my booking as an afterthought so I could spend the weekend in Karachi with my khala and cousin. We were at a family lunch when talk began of an earthquake in Islamabad. It had taken place early that morning, around 8 or 9 o'clock. My ears pricked up but not a whole lot - we were used to bad earthquakes in my home city and I remember many occasions on which we had to rush out of the house (sometimes in the middle of the night) and wait for it to pass. Earthquakes were normal in Islamabad.

But now they'd started talking about a building that had fallen. A block of flats. Where? I asked, expecting to hear of an overcrowded, dilapidated construction in an industrial area in Pindi. They didn't know. What was the name? they asked each other. Margalla? Margalla Towers?

"Margalla Towers??" I exclaimed. "You've got it wrong. That can't fall... that's a new building." What I meant was, That can't fall... rich people live there. We don't live in buildings that fall in earthquakes.

I rushed to call my mother but by that time all the lines were down because of the load. We knew a lot of people who lived in Margalla Towers. My friend Ambreen Mirza, my mother's friend Shahnaz Kapadia, my college junior Imran Moonis, and many other people. The first person I got through to was Azfar, who assured me that Ambreen and her family had gotten out safely. Their apartment wasn't in the tower that had fallen... it was adjacent to it. They'd rushed out in their nightclothes and then watched in horror as an entire building, home to hundreds of neighbours, had come down like a house of cards. Then I got through to Amma. "The Moonises were in that building," she said, her voice totally devoid of hope. I'd gone to Imran's apartment for a reunion a few years earlier. It was the penthouse and in my mind I kept thinking, "Then maybe they've survived. It's the top floor. Maybe they made it." They hadn't. Imran and his sister had already left their home for the day when the earthquake struck, but their parents were still there, getting an easy start to a weekend morning. Aunty's gold bangles were found a few days later, and some time after that their bodies were finally recovered.

My mother's friend Shahnaz lost her teenage son. They managed to exit the apartment in time but there were so many people stampeding down the main stairwell that he quickly directed his mother and younger brother to the fire escape. The stairs fell away under him as he led the way. The only reason why Shahnaz Aunty and her other son survived was because a big concrete block fell simultaneously on them, crushing her younger boy's legs and crippling him, but effectively holding them back from the stairs. To this day when I drive by the empty shell of the Margalla Towers complex in Islamabad, I can't drag my eyes away from the fire escape crawling its way down the side of the building and then disappearing into nothing.

For the rest of the weekend, I sat glued to the TV in my khala's house, following the news like a zombie. Repeat footage, again and again, of those familiar roads, that well-known and much-visited apartment complex, faces of friends and acquaintances floating by on the television screen. I saw Imran during the live transmission, explaining to rescuers where their apartment was and possible points of entry into it. He was calm and in control. He still believed that his parents might be alive. I remember being proud of him for being so brave, and wanting to step through the screen to stand with him.

The initial numbers were staggering. Azad Kashmir had seen the worst of the devastation. Over 70,000 people were believed to have died, scores of them children. And this was the most awful part: not just that they were children but the way they had died. Azad Kashmir has a very high literacy rate. Thousands of children were in school that Saturday morning (a weekday in government schools) so when the earthquake struck at 8.50 am, they were sitting ducks in their classrooms. But why did so many schools fall? I kept agonising. The answer wasn't that hard to figure out: poor construction. I still believe that every contractor who was assigned to build those government schools and who scrimped and saved and pilfered to make his extra bucks and who knowingly put up an unsafe structure has blood on his hands as of that day. God, I hope they pay some day. The same thing happened in Margalla Towers: the only tower that fell was the one that had been constructed the last, not because it was on the original plan but because the apartment scheme had become so wildly popular that the owners got greedy and made a construction over an unstable portion of the land that had a stream running through it. What price your extra wealth, you murderers?

                                                                  The fire within - Jalal Hameed

I flew back into Islamabad the following Monday. The injured were being flown in in the thousands from Kashmir. Everyone was volunteering for something. Offices didn't care if people didn't come in to work. Roads to Azad Kashmir were jammed because of the number of private vehicles going up to deliver relief goods. It was crazy, it was amazing, it was the only thing we could do. In the middle of all this, I volunteered in the children's surgical ward at Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS). Not being a medical professional, my job was to spend time with the children and help keep them cheerful. In the morning I'd be at an injured child's bedside, talking to her or reading to her, and the next morning I'd find her unconscious, recovering from an amputation surgery. It was horrible to see a child in pain but there was nothing quite like a child who'd be maimed for life. 

It's impossible to describe the atmosphere in that ward. It was a mix of extreme suffering and unimaginable mundanity, and in the middle of it all - these children. Everything seemed so much more fragile because of the children. I'd rolled a girl down to surgery one day when a man in hospital gear stopped me and enthusiastically asked how I was. Not quite able to place him, I played along and we talked while I was waiting for my charge's turn to be wheeled into OT. He was mid-sentence when someone came rushing in with a boy on a gurney... another volunteer like me who probably had no idea what he was doing or where he ought to be going. "I've been told that someone needs to see this boy!" he half screamed, half panted. The man I was talking to turned and took one look at the patient (a boy of about 8 or 9) and called out matter of factly, "You better hurry up. That one isn't going to make it." I still remember the boy's face: the eyes rolling up and that particular expression that tells you that the body's now giving up, it's letting go. I remember being shocked that my companion turned around and continued talking as if nothing had happened, and in that second of shock I suddenly placed him. He was my dentist's office assistant. Today when I recall that moment, these are the two things that stand out: the boy's eyes rolling up and the relief at finally connecting that this was Dr. Abid's assistant.

When I would go home in those days there would be a fixed routine. I'd lock my door, put on a song and start pacing the room. The song was a new one by Strings that had become popular because it made it to the soundtrack for the new Spiderman film, but it took on a completely different significance for me during those harrowing afternoons. I'd listen to it on repeat and I'd keep walking up and down, up and down, up and down... 

75,000 people dead, 75,000. Seventy-five thousand. Why? Why? There was no answer to that. So I'd keep walking and then go through the motions of meals and sleep and be back at the hospital the next day to find another child without an arm or a leg. I tried to make up for it by telling them jokes. And because they were children, they laughed.

If only I could explain adequately the greatness of heart in these children. I remember walking a girl through the corridors one day for a change of scene. She'd lost a limb a short while earlier. Limping along, leaning on me, she kept giving me duas for the entire duration of the walk. "Baaji, Allah aap ko bohat khushiyan de. Allah aap ko lambi zindagi de. Baaji, Allah aap ko MERI zindagi de de!" At that point we crossed a doctor who heard her. He smiled at her and said, "Agar aap ne apni zindagi in ko de di to phir aap kya karo gi, haan? Aap ne theek hona hai, okay?" And then back to the same, all along the corridor: May Allah take care of you. May Allah keep you happy. May you live long.

The next day when I went to see her, she was gone. They weren't keeping patients for too long in the days after the earthquake. There weren't enough beds. Some months later, I came home to get a message from my mother. She said a man had called, asking for me. He'd sounded unsure and awkward. When she enquired who he was, he said his daughter had been admitted in PIMS and that they were back in Azad Kashmir now but the girl kept insisting on talking to Baaji again. I knew who it was immediately; there was only one girl I'd given my number to. "Did you take down their number?" I asked my mother. She hadn't. I knew I wouldn't hear from them again. It had already taken a lot for her father to have made that call. Amma said that he kept apologising for having disturbed her and for having been so forward as to have called. But the important thing was, life was already moving on.

Some days ago Solom and I were on our way to his school when he asked the driver to put on song # 3. It was a new CD that Azfar had put in (mainly to end the unbearable tedium of listening to the previous one repeatedly). The melancholic notes of the same song by Strings came drifting out of the speakers. "Mama? I think this song is so beauuutiful," Solom sighed. "This is my faaavourite song." I couldn't believe it. Not that he liked the song, but how far my own life had come in so short a period. Just seven years ago Azfar and I had gone around the children's ward on Eid with a hospital trolley laden with rubrri doodh from Nirala Sweets and seen the kids' eyes open so wide with excitement that everyone seemed to forget momentarily the hell they'd been through, were going through and the hell that lay ahead. And now we were married with two children of our own - may God never, never show them that kind of suffering - and our own son was listening to the song that had come to represent the greatest tragedy I'd ever witnessed in my 34 years. And so it comes around.

I wish I knew where that girl was... how things turned out for her. She may have liked to know that Baaji has two sons of her own now, that Baaji married a tall, nice guy, that Allah took care of Baaji after all. Even while rebuilding her life and her fate brick by brick, memory by memory, she may have liked to know.


  1. I wonder if you really do come out of such heart-break. And when you look back, you feel selfish about feeling so heart-broken because it didn't happen to you. It happened to them and if they can smile through their tragedy and pray for strangers then what right do you have to grieve about it. But the fact is that you do grieve - for so much loss and such waste of life for a few extra bucks in one man's pocket. Is that what a life is worth, probably less than a kilo of paper money.

    I love this entry. It's a little piece of heartbreak right here.

  2. Sorry to hear that you lost people you knew in that tragedy. One of my friends was living at Margalla Towers then. When I had heard that the apartment had collapsed, I was sure that he was a goner. He later told me that he was in the building that didn't collapse. And also that he was at work at the time.

    It's amazing that you went out to volunteer. You must have seen some horrible things, such as that dying boy you described. One of my uncles, who is a doctor, also volunteered and he brought back some stuff that he later showed us, including X-rays of the victims. I can never put one of the images out of my mind: it was an X-ray of a spinal cord that was broken clean in two. You could actually see that it descended, broke in half, and the bottom part continued a few inches to the side. I was told that the man lived, but he that would never move again.

    But I guess, just like you describe in this post, some good did come out for you. You got to help people, took their duas and blessings and loaded up on a lot of those positive karma points. Makes me laugh how so many people on DWL take their karma points so seriously, getting all up in a bunch if someone give them a negative point, and being so proud of all their pluses. Also, how so many people are sitting at home, in their air-conditioned rooms, typing away on their shiny laptops, looking at sharp LCD screens, clicking the "Like" and "Retweet" buttons, conducting their armchair journalism and activism, and feeling that they have done their part in helping society without actually doing anything more that literally just raising their fingers; only to type and click of course.

    You should be proud that you went out and did your part when it was needed. Good on you!

  3. You should be very proud of yourself. Pakistan may have had precious little to celebrate in recent years, but our spirit isn't broken yet. Good on you!

  4. It was nothing compared to what others were doing. But then everyone felt that way. Nothing seemed enough in the face of such desolation.

  5. Armchair journalism and activism is a good phrase, Omer.

    1. Thanks! But even though I can take credit for coming up with the phrase, I can't take credit for coming up with the terms. I've read about "armchair journalism" and "armchair activism" in many places.

  6. Lost one of my best friends from back then in that incident. I remember each and every moment of those two days when I stood outside the perimeter set by the rescue team. Every time that they thought they found someone, they'd yell "silence" from on top of the rubble and at that point in time, it seemed as if the entire city came to a staggering halt. Everyone prayed for someone to be alive. I remember it like the back of my hand.

    1. *hug*

      Remember the aftershocks? They just wouldn't end.

    2. Yeah.. those were a mess too. My university was pretty close to the epicenter. The quake was so bad that when I came back into my room after it subsided, all my books had fallen out of the shelf, my computer monitor was lying on the floor and the windows had broken from being flexed beyond their limit.
      And then the aftershocks.. those were the real horror story, because now you knew that it could potentially have the same nature of the main earthquake. You couldn't shrug off a tremor anymore.

    3. We had these South African friends over a month after the earthquake and even at that time there were aftershocks of a minute or more (what would normally have qualified as a proper earthquake before). They really freaked out when the first one happened.

  7. this post will stay with me forever.... the stories of the things you saw, the things you felt, and the things that little girl's dad must have felt when he called you... *shudder* what a tragedy it truly was. may Allah protect us all from such horrid circumstances.

    1. I swear. Ameen a thousand times over.

  8. Hi Afia
    Thank you for remembering us by and keeping us in your prayers.
    I gather you have a toddler in the house.I married in 2010 and have atwo year old daughter.
    Pls do stay in touch. We just relocated to khi, so do drop us a line if you visit.
    With best rgds/ Imran

    1. We're in Karachi too, Mickoo! Just writing you as we speak :-)