Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Hands Unite in Pakistan - by Omar Ul Haq

Below is the first contributed post by one of my closest friends from home, Omar, who wrote a brilliant and very personal article on the aftermath of the Pakistan earthquake in 2005. I'd also like to emphasize and call attention to the NGO mentioned in the piece - H.A.N.D.S, an organization that aims to change the way Pakistanis are prepared to respond to crises and manage disasters. Although the earthquake hit over two years ago, the aftermath of the disaster is still felt today, so please take a moment and visit the website [listed above].

“On Saturday, October 8, 2005, two blocks of the Margalla Towers - a posh building of luxury apartments in Islamabad – collapsed after a 7.6 Richter scale earthquake struck at 8:53 am and lasted for approx 6 minutes. Besides many killed, more than 250 people, including foreign nationals, were buried alive under the debris. Over all, 74,698 died in Pakistan resulting from the Earthquake."

Unfortunately, two of the innocent souls in the Towers were those who were very special to us. Farid Zia Khan, my fathers best friend since nursery, was married to Hina Farid, my mother's cousin and they had three beautiful children together. Nida and Danish are both around my age and Nayha was 8 years old, an angel that could melt anyones heart. Our families have been obsessed with each other for as long as I can remember and we would have our usual lunches, dinners, drives, vacations, and hanging out sessions on a regular basis.

I still remember coming home on Friday, October 9th, 2005 after a long week at work, lying down on my couch, and flipping through different channels while trying to find something to watch on the television. Although I usually went out on Fridays, I had decided to stay in that night to catch up on some sleep. I began to make myself a sandwhich when I recieved a text message from my mother saying "big earthquake in Pakistan, something wrong with Margalla Towers, Hina is not answering the telephone so I'm driving to their house. I hope Allah brings good news". I read the text message, thought it must have been a slight tremor, and continued to make myself some dinner while watching an old episode of Friends.

An hour later, my mobile began to vibrate as I continued to recieve more text messages. I leaned over and saw another message from my mother, which said "Hina and Nayha are missing, praying to Allah that everything is fine". I didn't really comprehend what she meant by the fact that they were "missing" and I continued to assume that there must be dozens of people standing outside the Towers and she was probably trying to find them through those crowds of people. I remembered sitting in their flat in Margalla towers a few months ago while it was pouring rain and we were ridiculing those who had built this building as we felt the tower sway from side to side. I began to wash the dishes when finally, my father called sounding extremely upset to let me know that Farid Uncle was in Lahore, Nida and Danish were in Dubai, and that Hina Aunty and Nayha were inside Margalla Towers when it collapsed.

Although my father had been extremely straight forward with me, I kept telling him to speed it up and find them as I was convinced they were probably standing outside the Towers, hidden amongst the crowds of people. I refused to even consider the possibility that they had collapsed with the building. I decided to call Nida and Danish and speak to them as my Father was stressing me out and didn't have much information regarding the situation at the time. I spoke to Nida, who was confused, scared, 7 months pregnant, and had not spoken to anyone from Pakistan as yet. She passed the phone to Danish who, also in denial at the time, chose to avoid discussing the current crisis and was instead asking me how I was dealing with the snow in Washington DC. A few minutes later, I called back to find out if they had an update on the situation and like the rest of us, they were watching the news and could not believe that the building that CNN International was showing on repeat, minute after minute, was the building that they called "home". We briefly discussed the next available flights to Pakistan and they immediately left for the airport. Having only experienced a few tremors during my time in Islamabad, I could not even begin to imagine the extent of the tragedy taking place back home.

I didn't know how to react, let alone comprehend what had happened. We were glued to CNN, which was showing the collapsed "Margalla Towers" constantly and I couldn't believe that this was the same building we had spent so much time in for the past few years. Our hearts sank to see the building, the relief effort which was ridden with inefficiency, poor organization, and without any apparent leadership. It was depressing to say the least, to see Pakistan, a developing nation, trying to orchestrate a rescue effort without any proper machinery or equipment. However, we were incredibly grateful for those who had flown in from all over the world to help out in every possible way. CNN reported that they had heard voices of others trapped under the cement, but it wasn't possible for a medical team to get to them until the debris was completely removed. This was a time that Pakistan was truly in a "state of emergency" and we began to witness the entire country come together, holding hands, to fight this crisis together.

My parents called for the next two days telling us that there was still a glimmer of hope that Hina Aunty and Nayha may have survived and that we should continue to pray for them. As much as I wanted to prepare myself for the worst, it just wasn't possible at the time. I could not help but think about Farid Uncle, Nida, and Danish and what they must be going through. Nida, who was seven months pregnant at the time, needed her mother and younger sister at this crucial stage of her life and I wasn't able to understand why God would make her go through this. Hina Aunty was a gem of a person, so full of love and energy, and anyone who had ever met her would tell you that she was the glue that kept everyone together. In the words of her brother, Nameer Ameen, she was "a woman full of life, always laughing, and making others laugh. A spiritually devoted individual who not only lived what she preached but also inspired everyone around her". Nayha was truly special as well, shared a striking resemblance to her mother, and was looking forward to becoming an Aunt to Nida's baby, which was due in the next two months. And as Nameer has also said, she "had the power to steal your heart in a heart beat and had the ability to capture your love and attention no matter what. A darling of her father's heart, she was the only one who could melt Farid Zia's heart like no other has ever done before".

As I was sitting with a friend in my apartment two days later glued to the Television, that is when I received my mother's text message. "Nayha passed away. I don't know if Nida knows yet so please don't say anything to her. Farid identified her body and I recognized her new glass slippers which she had shown me when I had gone there for lunch yesterday. No news of Hina yet, please pray for her." My heart sank as I sat there with my mobile in my hand, tears rolling down my face, I shut my eyes, and just saw Nayha's face. The angel had passed away and gone to heaven in such a tragic way that it was just unbelievable. "Nunee Naahoo", as we all called her had kept her first "roza" ever that day and had forced her father to make it back to Islamabad in time for Iftar to eat with her. She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen and I refused to accept the fact that God had taken away this precious girl from her family.
It was not long before my mother sent a final text message saying "Hina passed away and I am leaving for the mortury". My mother's sister, her cousin, her best friend had passed away and I cannot even imagine what she must have gone through while identifying her body. Sitting in Washington DC and having to go through this with my brother Osman, my friends, and colleagues was probably one of the hardest things I have ever had to deal with in my life. I still had two months before I was able to leave the country and wasn't sure if I would ever have the strength to face Farid Uncle, Nida, and Danish and what I would say to them.

As I arrived in Pakistan, one of the first things I did was go to their house to visit them. Driving to an entirely different side of Islamabad, a different sector, and a completely different house to visit them was strange to say the least. I was shaking, sweating, and extremely nervous as I walked in to meet Farid Uncle, Danish, and Nida, who was expected to deliver any day. I didn’t have to say or do anything. I hugged them, sat with them, and relived all our memories for the next several hours. I needed to spend time with them and I can safely say that this was truly a moment of awakening for me: life could end in the blink of an eye and we should not take anything for granted. We stayed there for hours and before we knew it, it was 3:30 am. We remembered the time we were sitting in their living room in Margalla Towers a few months earlier just hanging out and Hina Aunty had come to the living room, huffing and puffing, and was trying to push us out of the door way while screaming "shahbash, ghar jao aur subah keh waqt aana". We had pushed her back, burst out laughing, and continued to chat away with Nida and Danish while she brought some tea and breakfast for us.

As human beings, we can't rewrite fate or what God has in store for all of us, however, we can at least try to understand and learn from our experiences and maybe then, we could be better-prepared and better-equipped to deal with such disasters in the future. As we all know, the destruction of Margalla Towers was no accidental tragedy. As time and investigations have proven, poor construction techniques, substandard materials, bribery, and corruption of the involved parties are the factors responsible for taking the very lives of so many and destroying so many families forever. I don't think it will ever be possible to forget those who passed away in the Earthquake. As a tribute to them, Nameer Ameen, Hina Aunty's brother, has started an NGO in their name.

Hina and Nayha Disaster Services, Pakistan (HANDS, Pakistan) is a tribute to both of them, who have inspired all of us to make a difference in the lives of those who need and deserve better preparedness when faced with calamities like earthquakes. HANDS aims to change the way Pakistanis are prepared to manage such disasters by proactively educating the public on the risk factors of earthquakes and other natural disasters and increasing public awareness in safety, hazard mitigation, as well as redefining construction standards in earthquake zones. In time, HANDS will hopefully provide world class search and rescue operations in the most efficient manner possible, dramatically reducing the loss of life during a calamity such as an earthquake or a flood.
We should never forget the disaster that changed our lives twenty-six months ago and always remember the ones we lost with a smile. I am still amazed at how so many races, cultures, and religions came together to help our country in our time of need. May Allah grant everyone who passed away with Paradise and forgive all their sins.

Rest in peace and we shall meet soon.

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