For children in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, making the journey of an hour or more to school each morning is fraught with risks. When they get there, the school is not the safe haven that all children deserve.
Life here is only just returning to normal after the magnitude 7.6 earthquake of 2005, which killed 73,000 people, smashed homes and infrastructure, and obliterated the economies of hundreds of villages. Many communities are also at risk of landslides and heavy snows. Roads are often closed, and mountain passes blocked.
Momina was eight years old when the earthquake struck. She is from Muzaffrabad, one of the three districts worst affected by the quake in Pakistan. She was unwell and did not attend school the day of the earthquake. She remembers what happened when it first hit,
‘I walked to the end of my street with my mother to buy medicine. My mother asked me to go home, give it to my grandmother, and return quickly. On the way back, I started to feel the ground moving under my feet. Then suddenly I saw the buildings around me collapsing. There was so much dust, I couldn’t see an inch in front of my face. It was like the dust you see in television programmes about 9/11.’
Momina’s uncle found her and took her to safety, an open space in a nearby park where she was reunited with her mother. Most of her family assembled there before nightfall.
Her elder brother died in his school that day along with 18,000 other school children across Kashmir.
While some children died instantly when their school buildings collapsed, the tragedy is that many others could have survived if their schools had practiced simple evacuation drills.
The threat of natural disaster hangs over these children. Seismic activity in the region is an on-going reality, and minor quakes occur regularly in some valleys. Hundreds of Kashmiri children also die in flash-floods, landslides, and avalanches. Pakistan has invested in reconstructing public buildings which comply with modern earthquake safety standards. But until now, little or no money has been spent on emergency training. Thanks to RedR supporters, this is changing.
This Autumn, RedR ran Disaster Risk Reduction training for teachers and local aid workers working with children in Kashmir. We are giving them critical skills like fire safety and first aid, which they then pass on to school children.
Bushra Azad is a teacher at Momina’s school in Muzaffrabad. She was 16, and at college when the earthquake hit.
‘When I remember the earthquake I am still horrified – I can picture the building collapsing, and then everything was black. When I regained consciousness I was in the playground. Someone had pulled me out. I had minor injuries to my leg. Around 60-70 people had died. The building was completely destroyed. I had no idea there were safety measures which could be taken.’
She has recently received RedR training, which she has used to show her pupils how to behave in the event of an earthquake, fire or flood.
‘Now I’ve been trained, I can see it’s really good for young children to know about safety and first aid. These children can now educate their communities, and share with them the safety measures they’ve learnt. Not all parents here are literate. It is really important to teach these skills in schools. The skills will stay in the community, and help us all in the long-term.’
Simple knowledge makes all the difference in a crisis. Bushra remembers two key examples, which she is certain will stick in the childrens’ minds:
‘I taught my class to stand in the corner in the case of an earthquake, because this is the strongest part of the room, structurally. Here in the city, children must stay away from all electricity cables in the street – many people were electrocuted in the earthquake when cables fell on them.’
RedR Trainers pass on these and other nuggets of life-saving information to teachers in Kashmir, who then lead training days in schools. Knowing when to adopt the brace position and how to seek cover under a desk or in an outside space means more children will survive. Schools which conduct regular evacuation drills and draw up safety plans, are immeasurably better prepared for natural disasters.
Tasaduq Hussain Khan works as a school teacher in Bagh District, a mountainous rural area.
‘When the earthquake struck I asked all the children to come into the middle of the room, and gradually vacate the building. But I could see the walls cracking, and the roof fell in as they collapsed. I started shouting, and people from nearby houses came to help me rescue the children.’
Although he had no training, Tasaduq had the presence of mind to evacuate his classroom and prevent the children from panicking. Only 4 died in his school, and 40 were injured. However, he lost his three year old son, who was at home that day with his grandmother.
My son was born after we’d been married for 8 years. He was very dear to us and I have been immensely depressed about losing him. At times I feel lost. The trauma has changed me permanently. If we had all had the awareness of what to do when an earthquake struck, we would have saved many more lives’.
He is very grateful that both he and his six year old son, Adeel have been taught how to deal with a range of natural disaster scenarios by RedR.
‘The other day it rained very heavily. There was lightning outside, and my son said, ‘let’s shut the doors and windows’. The training is good, I was impressed by his awareness.’
Adeel enjoyed the mock drills which were conducted by his class teacher, and is proud of his new knowledge:
‘I have learnt to protect myself from earthquakes. I have learnt to stay inside when lightning strikes, and when there is thunder. We learnt to get underneath our desks, and get to a safe place. I have also learnt when there is fire to extinguish it with mud or sand.
Whenever I learn a new thing at school, I go home and tell it to my mother.’
Basic planning can be so effective. So much of what we teach is not complex, but can be easily remembered in a crisis. Making this knowledge part of the culture in schools will have a huge impact for the children and their parents in this disaster-prone area.
RedR training has made people in Kashmir understand the importance the role they must play when earthquakes and other hazards hit. The first few days after a disaster are called the ‘Golden Days’. They are a critical window during which many deaths can still be prevented. It is the local people who have the power to save the most lives.
Flooding and landslides affected thousands of families across Kenya in April this year. Several hundred people drowned. Up to 60,000 Kenyans were displaced from their homes and lost livestock and valuables.
Even though this story did not merit the attention of the global media, its human and financial cost was vast.
Aid agencies had to somehow find the money to pay for the search, rescue and evacuation operations, and then to house, feed and provide clean water to the 30,000 people who flocked to refugee camps, where they remained for months afterwards. And local economies were devastated:- crops, food stocks, agricultural tools and valuable seeds were swept away and lost forever. Farmland was ruined. Fishermen lost entire stocks of fish, as well as all their equipment. Food prices in the affected areas rose dramatically, so locals became prone to malnutrition, and more likely to succumb to the water-borne diseases which were spreading due to contaminated water sources.
These communities should have been better prepared. Early-warning, hazard-mapping, risk reduction initiatives are all preventative measures which can be taught. Just days after the floods hit, while heavy rains were still falling causing further damage, RedR ran crucial training skills like these for aid workers in the affected areas. These aid workers have since been working with the community to prepare them for next year’s floods.
Thanks to the contributions of many RedR supporters, we have been able to a week's training in Community-based Disaster Risk Reduction for people who had volunteered as rescuers after the Rana Plaza collapse in April.
The course covered topics such as Search and Rescue, Disaster Management, Fire and Safety, and First Aid. Members of the volunteer first responder group participated in the training, learning a range of skills which will help when they respond to future disasters.
RedR offered this training in response to a request from Shahadat Hussein, a Bangladeshi man who had just spent five days and nights pulling survivors from the wreckage of the collapsed iRana Plaza garment factory collapse in Dhaka.
Shahadat is not an employee of the country’s emergency services, nor is he an aid worker. He is a local man who runs a hardware business. When news of the collapsed garment factory broke on local television, he quickly realised that not enough was being done to rescue workers trapped inside the building. He decided to volunteer alongside hundreds of other local people.
Shahadat and the other volunteers saved many lives before the Bangladeshi army stepped in and took over. They improvised search and rescue methods, using their own equipment to drill through the layers of concrete trapping the victims. They worked for hours at a time without proper protection – in dark, airless cavities with no water, boots or hard hats.
“When we found someone still alive inside the building, we did our level best to save that life. This was not an expert rescue. We improvised solutions using any equipment we could.”-Shahadat Hussein
Shahadat was right to seek professional training. The Rana Plaza disaster will not be a one-off occurrence. In June a survey conducted by engineers in Bangladesh revealed that three-fifths of the country’s 600 garment factories are poorly constructed and vulnerable to collapse.
All photos © RedR/GMB Akash