Location: Shala Bagh village and Khilla Chattgran Village near Muzaffarabad city. Azed Jammu & Kashmir region. Pakistan.
Date: 12th & 13th September 2006.
Pakistan is a country of great contrasts – from the dessert of Balochistan, the verdant greenery of Punjab and the vast snowy mountain ranges of Hunza in the Northern Areas, this is a land of many different races and languages. Pashtuns, Punjabis, Sindhis and Afghans to name but a few can be found intermingling in the cities. All these people share two things in common – an inability to drive and a great sense of hospitality.
There is, however, a major gap between classes. The well educated upper classes have huge houses and employ servants. The majority of the population is under-educated, live in poor housing conditions and have local income.
Having broken our transport yet again and being inflicted with a rapidly decreasing amount of time, myself and Richard split up in Abbotabad. He would get the Land Rover fixed while I would make my way to the city of Muzaffarabad to see first hand the work ActionAid is doing in the Azed Jammu & Kashmir area. This area was worst affected by the October 8th 2005 earthquake in which 400,000 homes were damaged or destroyed and 73,000 people were killed. 70% of the schools and colleges in the area were destroyed resulting in the death of 18,000 students. The streets of the city are still full of the remains of collapsed buildings which clearly demonstrate the destructive power of the quake which measured 7.6 on the moment magnitude scale.
Arriving by minibus in the city centre, I headed to a taxi stand to find the location of the ActionAid office. The taxi driver didn’t have a clue but luckily a young student who was passing did. Hoping on the back of his motorbike we careered through the busy streets up to a hill above the city where we found the address within a few minutes. His asking price – a handshake and a nod.
I received a warm welcome from the staff at the ActionAid office led by the field coordinator Ms Alia Farooq and soon after explaining what I was doing there I was being ushered out the door to see one of the project villages. Ms Farooq had been a victim of the earthquake just as much as the people she is working to help now. Her own home in the city collapsed, killing 3 of her family members.
The village of Shala Bagh was devastated by the earthquake on 8th October 2005. All the buildings were destroyed or irrecoverably damaged and large numbers of people were crushed to death beneath the debris. This was a village which previously had no problems. People had houses and jobs and lived normal lives. After the quake they had nothing. The government response to the quake was poor – people were offered a paltry monetary compensation which was subject to huge bureaucratic wrangle i.e. corruption.
ActionAid held extensive negotiations with the surviving residents to find out what they needed in the aftermath of the quake. In the early days it was basic emergency shelter and food. ActionAid provided tents followed by a model (quake proof) shelter and trained the local people in how to build their own. They also provided chickens and goats which could be bred for food. As time progressed, the needs of the villagers changed. ActionAid held regular discussions to find out what these needs were. At the time of my visit, almost one year after the quake, there was now a community centre where men and women from the whole area come to discuss problems and issues. There was also a medical unit providing health care with a doctor, 2 nurses and a dispensist. A local shop had been set up with a grant of 5000 PKR (?50) which was now self-running and making regular profit. Local women were being trained in sewing and needle-craft and some women were making income by making and repairing clothes for people from other villages. The chickens and goats were multiplying and the crops for which ActionAid had provided the seeds were in full bloom. New buildings were being constructed to replace the emergency shelters.
All this demonstrates ActionAids methods of working. People are not given handouts then left to fend for themselves. A comprehensive survey is undertaken to allow the community to express its needs. Afterall, they are more likely to know than anyone else. The needs are then prioritized and action is taken to train and skill the community to progress these issues themselves. In this way, the skills stay within the community. If ActionAid arrived, built shelters and left, who would maintain them? Who would build new ones? By training the community to build themselves, they are arming people with the ability to help themselves.
Once the immediate needs of food and shelter have been addressed, the community is encouraged to invest in its long-term future. People are trained in the areas that they feel they need skills in. In this community, the women wanted to be able to mend their families clothing – hence the sewing classes which then becomes a source of income as well.
During my visit there it was plainly obvious how much respect people had for Ms Farooq. Her ability to communicate with the villagers and her strong personality and sense of duty make her the perfect person for this role. ActionAid always endeavor to recruit staff from the actual areas they are working in. There are great benefits in this as in a lot of areas, an in-depth understanding of cultural and societal issues is essential. It would be foolish to attempt to parachute someone in to this area and expect them to be able to perform this role. The other ActionAid staff members that I met were all from the local area and passionate about their work. By training local people in the methods that ActionAid has developed through years of experience in similar situations, the organization is making the best use of resources and ensuring a level of commitment that may not be achievable otherwise.
In just under one year, the village of Shala Bagh had recovered from a scene of total devastation to a bustling community which has the necessary structures in place to help it progress and thrive. The support ActionAid needs to give this village is steadily declining and soon the community will be entirely self-sufficient.
The next day, I visited another village in the area. Located in the hills surrounding Muzaffarabad, the village of Khilla Chattgran was also badly affected by the earthquake. The local private school is populated by children from the local area, many of whom are now being sponsored under the ActionAid Child Sponsorship Scheme. Eight year old Samya Zaib is one such child. His monthly fee for school is 180 PKR (?1.50). Previously, ActionAid had undertaken a food and water programme in his village to address the immediate needs of the community. Now they are further developing the village by having helped villagers set up a community centre and by the Child Sponsorship Scheme. This demonstrates ActionAid’s commitment to the long-term development of communities – giving people the opportunity to build the structures they require to thrive in the future.
For Further Information: