Pakistan: Balakot, one year after the devastating earthquake

Quake survivors caught in limbo

Time seems to have stood still in Balakot, the once picturesque town that was flattened to the ground by the October 8, 2005 earthquake in Pakistan and Kashmir. In almost all other areas devastated by the quake, which killed more than one hundred thousand people, reconstruction work and efforts of some sort to rebuild livelihoods are evident. In Balakot, almost nothing seems to have moved on over the past one year. People are still live in frayed tents or in cave-like shelters carved out amidst the heaps of rubble. Schools, operating in tents, often lack blackboards, chairs or other basic amenities. Makeshift hospitals are run mainly by religious groups and some NGOs, the shops near roadsides are operated by Afghan refugees.

Riaz Hussain, a local farmer expressed his disappointment in these words, “We are in a state of limbo. Everyone has left us and no one knows what will happen next. Even the reconstruction work has been stopped” as he pointed to abandoned sacks of cement and small piles of bricks as evidence of suspended construction work.

In what amounts to an unprecedented event in the history of Pakistan, the government has decided to remove Balakot from the map. Instead, a new town is to be built, most likely at Bakrial, a site some 20 kilometers away from the existing city. The site is currently a desolate moonscape of rocky hills, but government officials insist the new town built will be designed to resemble Islamabad and will include modern housing, sewage facilities and drinking water. Seismologists have declared Balakot to lie within a red zone spanning several major fault lines and say it is too dangerous for people to live in. The decision to move the town and its 35000 population was taken in April 2006. However 200 kilometres away from Islamabad, the people of Balakot still have little idea of what is planned for them. One local resident said “We have heard rumours that we are to be taken away somewhere else. Government officials have also been in and out of this place, but we have no idea where we are to go, when and how.” Around him stretches a desolate wasteland of rubble, still lying deep on the ground. Like many of Balakot’s inhabitants, he feels that they have been forgotten and asks, “We will move when they tell us, but how will we live till then?”

While confusion prevails, there is also deep anger in Balakot: anger that agencies and the army have moved away, anger over the lack of medical facilities, and anger about not having any say in the decision about their own future. At the present pace of reconstruction work it will take at least 5 years to build the new infrastructures for the new town. People will be forced to live in tents and temporary shelters for years to come. There is acute shortage of water in the area. This town was dependent on tourism, and there is no tourism at the moment. The coming winter will bring more problems and miseries to the people who are already suffering from poverty, unemployment and hunger.

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