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Rx for Survival — A Global Health Challenge

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Dispatches from the Field:

Michael Bociurkiw

Doing our Best, Saving as Many Lives as Possible

By Michael Bociurkiw
Mansehra, Kashmir



October 28, 2005

My team and I set off from the Pakistani capital in the pre-dawn hours headed for the heart of the earthquake zone. Today our mission is to deliver several thousand kilograms of tents and blankets to isolated tribal communities along the shores of the Indus River in Pakistani-administered Kashmir. After five hours on the road and several more hours of loading and setting our rustic boats on course, the first recipients of our aid come into view.

We quickly realize that none of these communities had yet been reached by relief workers since a powerful earthquake ravaged this bucolic but inhospitable land more than three weeks ago. These are proud and self-sufficient people, but the looks on their faces upon seeing our relief boats betray a sense of gratitude. Weatherworn men and boys run toward our flotilla.

Sprinkled in the steep mountains that tower over the mighty Indus River, these communities each have their own haunting tales of tragedy. A family crushed under the rubble, a schoolhouse demolished, a young boy unable to locate his parents.

Having overcome almost insurmountable obstacles to reach them, at the end of the one-day mission we are warmed by a sense of accomplishment. Elated that our stamina and perseverance got us to these remote communities before the winter snows do. But there are few smiles. As the sun sets in a kaleidoscope of colors and as we steer our boats toward the shores, the enormity of the relief operation dawns upon us. We realize that there are several hundred communities just like the ones we visited, sprinkled among the jagged rocky peaks, that have been unreached — and that will remain unattended to by the time impending snow, up to 10 feet deep, will blanket these mountains. One uniformed army official tells me on a helipad the next day that there are an estimated one million people living in the quake-ravaged sections of the Himalayan Mountains.

The tales of tragedy are as diverse as the people of this rugged land. Aid workers say the scope of the damage and the degree of loss of human life dwarfs anything they have seen in the past. With some three million homeless and the death toll surging past 50,000, painful benchmarks set against previous natural disasters have long been surpassed.

By any measure the earthquake is a catastrophe for children. They make up about half of the affected population, and about one-fifth is five and under. Many families have absolutely nothing left. The quake struck on a Saturday morning when classrooms were full. It doesn't take an expert to conclude that most were not built to withstand medium to strong earthquakes.

For those of us in the business of protecting children — including colleagues battle-hardened from previous disasters — this massive blow to children has struck us particularly hard. It's impossible to comprehend the huge numbers when an entire generation has been so badly affected. We can't help but wonder about the future of those kids we saw taken off of rescue helicopters, with wounds so badly infected that crude amputations were the only way to save their lives. So many parents have perished that there are thousands of children looking after younger siblings. Every time it rains or whenever the nighttime temperatures dip to freezing, our thoughts turn to the million or so people still living in the mountains ravaged by the quake.

Most of our travel through this mountainous region is by helicopter. I often look out the window and shake my head at the scale of the devastation and the terrible impact it's had on human life. Entire communities have been buried forever in landslides. After three weeks of digging a huge fleet of tractors and cranes have hardly made a dent in the ruble in the particularly hard hit city of Muzaffarabad.

In Muzaffarabad several hundred students are still buried under their flattened college. One of the saddest memories I have from the many flights I've taken into remote mountain villages is the sight of two boys in Jarad searching for their classmates amid the rocks and timber of what was once their school. There's simply no heavy equipment in remote villages to recover bodies. Even though three weeks have passed since the quake, the stench of human death still hangs heavily in the air in places like heavily hit Balakot.

With the start of the harsh Himalayan winter just days away, the efforts of UNICEF and other aid agencies has been framed as a race against time. Our agency has been focused on providing shelter, protecting kids against sickness through such things as immunization and providing blankets and tents, boosting their defenses with high energy biscuits.

Lately we have launched — albeit on a small scale — schools in the several tent enclaves in the lowlands. We are often asked why classrooms at a time when people are so obsessed with survival and rebuilding? You just need to see the look of distress in children's faces. You need to see thousands of kids roaming around squalid tent camps to comprehend the degree of loss and boredom they are forced to endure. Parents tell us that having their kids in classrooms — no matter how short the school day — frees them up to focus on rebuilding their ruined lives.

When historians chronicle the response to this horrible calamity, we in the aid community can at least say we gave it our best shot. Even with a huge gap in funding, unimaginable logistical difficulties and the onset of winter, we acted with speed, wisdom and compassion to save as many children's lives as possible.

About the author:

Michael Bociurkiw is a UNICEF Communications Officer. He worked previously as a consultant to UNICEF on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border during the Afghan crisis of 2001. As a journalist, Michael has spent much of his career covering Southeast Asia, including more than three years in Malaysia. He was been a contributing writer at Forbes Magazine and MSNBC.com, and a staff reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press, the South China Morning Post, Eastern Express and Asia Times.

Image of a young girl looking after her infant sister near the earthquake-ravaged town of Balakot, Pakistan.

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