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South Asia earthquake: conversations in Chinari

21-12-2005 Feature

ICRC delegate, Jessica Barry, describes how an ICRC supported venture in Chinari has provided space for people to grieve.


© ICRC / J. Barry 
Conversations over Breakfast in Chinari. 
    Majid Ali, a 20-year-old economics student stopped eating his bread and tea and came over to join two strangers who had just sat down. Chinari's tiny teashop was crowded with customers and he had to raise his voice to make himself heard above the noise. Lorries honked their horns in the street outside, and overcrowded buses clattered by adding to the din as they headed down the Jhelum valley.

From the bustle outside you could be forgiven for thinking that this once-thriving hill station in Pakistan-administered Kashmir was on the mend after being largely flattened by the 8th October earthquake. But what Mr Ali and his fellow diners told their visitors during a lengthy conversation brought back into searing focus the horror of the quake and its aftermath.

" I was in the bazaar when the shaking started, " Majid said, sipping his tea. " It was so powerful I fell to the ground, and when I stood up nothing was visible because of the dust. There was total silence. Then people started wailing and calling for help and I rushed over to try and pull people out of collapsed buildings. "

" I used to work in the Karim Hotel and Restaurant along the street over there, " said the teashop's owner, Muneer Ahmed, pointing up the road. " It sold delicious food. It was completely destroyed in the earthquake. Now I have opened this teashop, and people come here to be together and talk. "

The café is open from 5.00 am until midnight every day. Mr Ahmed, from the village of Sardak, sleeps on the premises. He relies on relatives to help him run the place, at least for now.

The teashop is situated on the busy main road that runs from the Line of Control near Chakoti, through Chinari, and down to Muzaffarabad. The walls are made of sacking and cardboard, reinforced with wooden planks. The dark interior is furnished with benches recovered from a destroyed school.

Despite being a makeshift affair, the teashop soon became a meeting point for the community after the quake.

The fare was basic too at the beginning, consisting mostly of flat, round bread and tea.

Water was another problem, for the town's main supply had been cut off, and Mr Ahmed, the teashop owner, had to pay exorbitant rates to a carrier to fetch water from the river.

With help from the ICRC who set up a basic health unit in Chinari at the end of October, and whose delegates passed by the teashop daily on their way to their tented office in the grounds of a ruined guest house, Mr Ahmed's problems were gradually solved.

ICRC engineers restored an emergency water supply to the town by pumping water from the river 60 metres uphill to the hel ipad, and erecting tap stands from which the community could fill buckets and jerrycans. They also reconnected the pipes running down from a spring in the hills to the main road, and set up a distribution system using water tankers. Yet more tap stands were put up in front of the tea shop, much to Mr Ahmed's joy.

© ICRC / J. Barry 
Muneer Ahmed making tea for his customers 

A lack of crockery and cooking pots posed other difficulties, together with a shortage of milk and eggs. All these challenges were surmounted over time with the ICRC's help. Once he had sufficiently large saucepans Mr Ahmed was able to cook hot meals, and his clientele grew.

By offering a warm space in which to gather and converse, he was catering not only for his customers'desire to fill their stomachs, but also for their need to be able to sit together, and come to terms with their loss. It was for this reason, as much as any other, that the ICRC decided to support the enterprise.

The conversation with Majid Ali and others that morning over a meal of spicy dhal and chapattis was ample justification, if any were needed, for that decision.

" We have forgotten all normal things, " said one man, as the customers gathered round. 

" We just come here to share our grief, " said another, who lost 29 close relatives in the earthquake and whose own daughter was hospitalized for 22 days with two broken arms.

" We would have died in bigger numbers if you outsiders had not come here, " came a voice from the crowd.

Everyone wanted to share their experiences. And their pain. The stories were poignant and tragic, and for the most part recounted with quiet resignation. Not all of them, however, dwelt on the past. Mr Ahmed, riding the crest of his teashop success, spoke of his plans to open another eating house in the months ahead.

And Majid Ali, the student, lamenting the disruption to his studies, murmured, " we have everything to eat, and nothing to read. "