Momina and her mother. Photo: RedR/Usman Ghani
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.
Momina's education is very important to her.
Adeel practices taking shelter under his desk.
Adeel learning about how to stay earthquake-safe
All photos copyright RedR/Usman Ghani