How to survive an earthquake

THE NUMBERS ROSE slowly, like a cricket innings, and the commentators droned. There was little new information and the television news recycled the same repetitive pictures with a boxed scorecard showing a slowly growing body count. An apartment complex in Islamabad had collapsed: fifteen people missing. An hour later it had turned to twenty-five; by mid-afternoon it was 150. The army had been called up, and stood around with guns looking helpless as rapid-reaction teams with sniffer dogs arrived to pull the living from the vast pile of concrete and dust. The news was the steadily rising death toll and the threat of many more.

But for me, living in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province[i] in 2005, this was no distant event. I had felt the ground shake violently, and had taken cover under my bed as the plaster fell from the ceiling and furniture crashed around me. For a moment it seemed that the walls and the ceiling were swaying in a disjointed waltz. I watched as the fan slowly detached itself from the ceiling, and made the calculation that it was too late to bolt down three flights of stairs. I had heard the term 'triangulation' – getting down next to a solid object so that when the roof came down it would form a small triangular, survivable space. But the furniture didn't look that solid and, as I got down next to the bed, the earth moved again – first from side to side, and then up and down in jolts.

And in those minutes, shortly before breakfast on a Sunday morning, eighty-three thousand people were crushed to death and a further three million rendered instantly homeless across the hills of the Karakorum and the Himalaya.

I knew nothing of this at the time. After the hotel stopped shaking I went out into the bustling town of Mingora, in the Swat Valley (later the site of a major battle against the Pakistani Taliban), and continued what I had left Australia to do: explore the astonishing and ancient remains of Indo-Hellenic civilisation that had spread across Pakistan's northern plains and into the foothills of the Hindu Kush. Oblivious to the news of the earthquake slowly trickling in, I climbed amid the ruined monasteries and universities of the Bactrian Greeks, whose mesmeric fusion of Greek and Buddhist cultures scatters the Gandhara Plains from Kabul to Peshawar and the outskirts of Islamabad. I pored over ancient coins embossed with the profile of Alexander the Great and sculptures of curly-haired, toga-clad Buddhas.[ii] My Muslim guides spoke of the importance of pluralism, the subjectivity of truth and the arcane theological meaning embodied in the myriad poses of Greco-Buddhist statues exquisitely preserved in the stone of the North West Frontier.

One guide had studied to be a teacher in Russia and returned to the Swat Valley because of its strong educational traditions. He used to take his classes around the ruins, explaining to them the pre-Islamic history of the region. When I got back to the hotel that evening I received a call from ABC Radio National, desperately seeking an Australian 'eyewitness' to the earthquake. 'Is there a danger,' the interviewer asked, 'that orphans will attend madrasahs and become the next generation of terrorists?'

While the cosmic stone masonry of the Bactrian Greeks had lasted the millennia, the squat concrete structures of modern Pakistan disintegrated in seconds. Back in Islamabad, some days later, I could see the true size of the catastrophe. I attended public meetings of the UN co-ordination team, and the situation looked desperate. The earthquake had ripped across the entire north of the country, shattering cities and destroying villages. There were insufficient resources, mountain roads had been swept away and thousands of small villages at vast altitudes were inaccessible. Helicopters had been ordered to fly reconnaissance and aid sorties over the deep valleys of Pakistan's north – but there were too few of these available. Most of the army's 114 Chinooks were engaged fighting a nebulous 'war on terror' in the country's tribal agencies and could not be recalled. In any case, we were told, it was technically too difficult to remove the machine-gun awnings to make way for cargoes of aid.

For forty-eight hours the international media circus descended on the city – flown in from New York, London, Paris, Brussels and Tehran – to capture on camera the reeling of a concussed nation and the growing stench of the stricken cities, before flying out again. Night after night the TV brought updates and crossed live to journalists in Islamabad solemnly intoning the 'universal truths' about Pakistan: a nuclear-armed Islamic state beset by 'terror, the bomb and military rule'.

I recalled the words of my Russian history lecturer, who had said he wanted to rescue the past, and consequently the present, from theorists and commentators who saw the world in terms of systems rather than societies. In Pakistan the same experts and analysts had migrated from Soviet studies to the more fashionable concerns of terrorism, Islam and South Asia. Having failed to predict the demise of the Soviet Union in their previous careers, they were now equally unable to account for Pakistan's resilience. But, for the remaining three million people in the distant hills of the Himalayas, brutally dislodged from their mountain fastness, facing rain and sleet, snow and ice, these debates were meaningless.

Feeling useless in this chaos, I volunteered at a local charity and spent an afternoon loading trucks with anything people could throw together to send into the mountains. Blankets, jumpers, bedding and food arrived from across the country, its inhabitants all knowing there would be little hope for the millions of earthquake survivors once the Himalayan winter set in. I sat in a small circle with the charity's founder – a Gandhian figure whose humility, simplicity and perhaps feigned illiteracy were a foil for his immense organisational abilities and intellect. He had founded the country's only national ambulance service, and a network of schools and orphanages. Deeply devout, he was asked by one woman seeking to imitate the depths of his Islamic belief how many times he prayed each day. 'Sister,' he replied with more than a hint of the Mahatma's wit, 'I deal in wholesale, not retail.'


WANTING TO DO more than load trucks, I was tipped off by a friend that an international aid organisation was expanding its operations and needed people for more substantive work. I was invited to an interview with the operations manager, who already looked haggard and overworked. We sat on directors chairs in a garden in a leafy and subdued Islamabad suburb. He looked over my CV for a few minutes before asking if I liked camping. 'Very much,' I replied, and tried to look as if I meant it while he examined me for an unnerving moment before throwing his hands up in resignation: 'Look, you can walk, you can talk and right now we need bodies on the ground. Do you know where I can get a case of Scotch in Islamabad?'

Fortuitously, I had just been given the number of shady alcohol supplier known simply as Mr Scotch. I was hired.

The following day I was put in a car and driven to Mansehra, the town that would become a hub for the relief effort in the North West Frontier Province and my home for the next eighteen months. I had no idea what I would be doing or who I would be working with. The first signs weren't good.

I was dropped off at a small collapsed primary school, which was where I slept and where our makeshift headquarters would be situated for the next few weeks. Ostensibly we were co-ordinating all organisations providing emergency shelter to the more than seven hundred thousand people who had lost their homes during the earthquake. We had been lent some space amid the concrete debris by a mobile German medical unit that had quartered there, and during the day we set up our office on a series of string beds, one of which we turned on its head and moved every half hour with the rotation of the sun, to provide shade. Every few minutes the dull thud of rotor blades roared overhead as NATO helicopters – sent over from Afghanistan – flew past on aid missions. The nights were bitterly cold, and even though I slept in a cracked classroom I learned quickly to leave my sleeping bag open and to run out into the courtyard every time there was an aftershock – which came frequently and massively in the aftermath of that first tectonic jolt.

The organisation I was working for had arrived late on the scene and had been given a central role in the relief effort. The reception was harsh. We were addressed by our institutional acronym, rather than by name. The multi-pocketed pseudo-military jerkins we wore quickly became known as 'the target', owing to the organisation's round logo and the hostile response they guaranteed. Subsequently, as they became an established part of 'field wear', sported by anyone who wished to suggest they had somehow been 'at the front', they became known as 'the wanker jacket'. 'Don't you realise there's been an earthquake?' I was asked early on by one exasperated aid worker who, ironically, had come to us for help.

The nights were equally unremitting, and what was officially termed 'the close of play' began sometime after 10 pm with the announcement of an hour of reflection – a sort of humanitarian Nunc dimittis, complete with the swirling smoke of Raj-nostalgic cigarettes: Players, Pall Mall, Craven A. We called this almost religious moment 'fuck-up of the day'.

But information on the earthquake was limited and uncoordinated. Reports dribbled in from field staff of new population movements, uncontacted villages and whole districts in the mountains still reeling from aftershocks. Random shell-shocked people would turn up at our door asking for aid, sometimes with battered handwritten letters of supplication in English or Urdu that had clearly been taken from aid agency to aid agency in the hope of finding a tent, sleeping bag or box of military rations.

I spent a day with a team conducting aerial assessments of the northern valleys most severely hit by the earthquake. I had read the reports and seen some footage but only after eight hours in a helicopter, weaving in and out of the valleys, did I begin to comprehend the full picture. From on high little damage could be seen, but as we swooped low on unsuspecting hamlets clustered together at altitudes of up to ten thousand feet the destruction was evident. Roofs of houses that looked intact from above suddenly appeared unsupported by walls and sat a few feet off the ground, covering the debris that had crushed those inside. Roads, carved over decades with conscripted muscle and dynamite through the vast mountains, had been swept away in seconds, cutting off whole regions from the outside world. In a land of swallowed roads and shattered bridges, and covered in the grey dust of concrete, rubble and brick, only the domed mosques – built, ironically, for another world – continued to stand.

In a few places we landed – blowing down tents and covering the landscape and its inhabitants with dust from the helicopter's downdraft. We leapt out clutching notebooks and GPS units vigorously recording our altitude, co-ordinates and observations, as if this rush of note-taking would somehow shrink mountains, unify villages and bring order to chaos.

But this new appreciation for the enormity of the disaster only diminished our feeble initial response. After some days trying to establish a presence in Mansehra and acting as the de facto punching bag for the international community, I was sent north to the town of Balakot to assess the effectiveness of our operations there. I had never seen a disaster zone like this before: the scene was shocking and unreal, familiar to me only from the grainy footage of post-apocalyptic Hiroshima after the flight of the Enola Gay. Towering snow-capped peaks, like monumental tombstones, were etched sharply against the sky and stood guard over the remains of a city of thirty thousand people now compacted to little more than knee height. No structures remained standing. Even in the ruins of the town the air was so clear it crackled with each breath and the vertiginous scale of the mountains lent a paradoxical clarity and euphoria to a scene of confusion, disorientation and loss. Men and women walked through the former streets and surrounding encampments at once familiar and yet now vanished, displaced strangers amid the destruction of their own home and city.

Strangely, given Northern Pakistan's conservative and patriarchal society, I saw a young girl leading her father, bleeding from the head and evidently unable to see, towards a Pakistan Red Crescent field hospital. As if responding to the absurdity of a world turned upside down, fruit sellers had set up stalls in the rubble of a collapsed market, offering their oranges to non-existent crowds. The sole surviving building – a green-domed mosque – emitted a call to prayer, a lone human voice that echoed hauntingly in the brutal grandeur of the valley.

Our set-up in Balakot was dysfunctional and needed almost as much assistance as the homeless former residents themselves. Huddling in leaky canvas tents, wallowing in sludge, already coughing from bronchial infections and ineffectually led, the team of Pashtuns was demoralised and at breaking point. I had been sent up in an effort to take control of the local operation, and get evidence to dismiss its venal and incompetent international manager – Jabba the Hutt, as he had become known. On arrival I had received a message from headquarters in Islamabad to 'rock no boats', and had no authority to intervene in the operation or the treatment of staff. 'I will eat him,' roared one of my Pashtun colleagues in rage, having just been dismissed for the unpardonable crime of being competent. It was a mess; the city was destroyed; our operational response was useless and its field management beyond redemption. As I walked out of yet another freezing tent I stumbled into a muddy and treacherous area by the riverbank that turned out to be an open sewer. Everything in that place on that day seemed to have been cursed.

Back in Islamabad I met with our new operations manager: an American with pale blue eyes and slightly bucked front teeth whose number was listed in my phone as Bugs. New to the business of aid and overwhelmed by the enormousness of the task ahead of us, I hoped he would give some clear direction and advice. We discussed the weather and his recent visit to Indonesia, and before heading off he handed me a brown envelope. 'Read this on your way back,' he said. 'It'll give a you a good idea of what we're all about.' In the car I tore open the envelope, looking for the instructions that would solve the earthquake and provide winter shelters for the almost one million people who were now homeless. 'Proposal for Rubble Removal,' the document said. Back at base – amid the debris of the former primary school – my emails addressed to 'rubble rouser' and 'rubble with a cause' went unanswered.


'YOU KNOW, TOM,' said Colonel Mohsin, settling into an expansive postprandial mood on the veranda of the Frontier Force Officers' Mess in the leafy garrison town of Abbottabad, 'I was once a POW.' I had known Col. Mohsin (Retd) for some time now. He had appeared one day at our office with a brilliantly trimmed moustache, regimental cravat, and cuffs that crackled and shot at every opportunity. Since then he had managed a vast logistics operation – three hundred trucks, drivers and field staff – moving hundreds of thousands of tarpaulins, blankets, mattresses, tents, tools, clothes, and tens of thousands of people, around the treacherous mountain roads with sangfroid and studied understatement. He had converted our office into an operation and had, with his years in the army, brought the art of war into the business of aid. Because of him, there was purpose in our work and the rooms were now covered in maps, diagrams and checklists; the atmosphere was of a strangely relaxed, avuncular authority. Everyone now addressed each other as bhai or bhaji (brother/sister), while heels clicked and salutes were given in the corridors of what had become a humanitarian war room.

Behind the nicotine-fuelled histrionics of the internationals, so visible during the initial phases of the earthquake response, our Pakistani friends and colleagues had brought order, humour, clarity, dignity and direction to the response. 'Thank God the earthquake happened here,' one departing aid worker told me. 'We would have been lost anywhere else.' With Col. Mohsin and my indomitable colleagues – Shahab, Zubair, Usman and Samira – grinning broadly in response to each new setback (and there were many), we thought we could do anything. One glorious day I overheard Shahab, a fearlessly self-confident Pashtun, talking to a recently arrived international head of a major UN agency. 'Boy,' he commanded across the gulf of rank and pay, 'I would advise you to go outside and see actually what's happening.'

Some time later, at Col. Mohsin's invitation, I had driven to Abbottabad on my way back to the capital to join him in his spiritual home: the mess. After a tour of the extensive gardens and regimental dining room with its gleaming silverware we proceeded to the billiard room, where a portrait of the Islamic Republic's Founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, gazed down from the wall. This was no ordinary Jinnah. In most portraits he was misleadingly shown in Islamic dress: the sober, steely-willed founder of the nation, its first governor-general and moral light. Yet in the Frontier Force Officers' Mess, another Jinnah appeared. Cigar clenched between his teeth, he leaned over the very billiard table on which Col. Mohsin and I now played, taking aim while a tumbler of whisky (not, judging from the evidence on the wall, his first) balanced precariously next to him. The picture had been taken many years before alcohol was banned in Pakistan. 'Ah, yes,' sighed Col. Mohsin as he caught my eye. 'This used to be a wet bar, but since 1975 we have been dry... Wet bar, dry bar...' he repeated softly as we left the room, an untouched cup of milky tea going cold in a corner behind us.

Back on the veranda, we sat and talked and he returned to the subject of prisoners of war. Having been captured as a young lieutenant by Indian forces intervening in Bangladesh's war of liberation from West Pakistan in 1971, he had decided that it was the duty of every young officer to resist capture and to escape. With his fellow conspirators he had tunnelled vigorously to get out of the POW camp, but every tunnel had collapsed inches from the perimeter fence. 'So, after all these failed attempts to tunnel our way out, you know what we did, Tom,' he said as I shook my head. 'We made a run for it.'

Comrades in the disaster response, we embraced, shook hands and saluted as I said goodbye. A peacock wandered past the gate and I started my journey back to the capital, wondering which country and century I was in.

Years later I was stunned when 'sociable Abbottabad', as we had known it, with its leafy streets and parks and charming markets, shot to international infamy as the final hideout of Osama bin Laden. Introduced to the town by my friend Col. Mohsin, I had seen it not through the lens of twenty-first-century struggles but through the perspective of another age somehow lingering, just, on the brutal frontiers of the new Great Game.


MY TIME IN the cosy and endearingly civil world of Pakistan's retired officer class was regrettably brief. 'Good morning, sunshine,' my all-too-contemporary American boss would say each day through a plume of cigarette smoke, as I stumbled into the office from my cot on the floor, trying desperately to wake up. The daily repetition of this sardonic mantra over seven months would become almost a curse. With those words I entered the highly politicised and ruthless world of a major humanitarian operation.

The old certainties vanished instantly. To assist the people affected by the earthquake the game had to be played, and much of this depended on what kind of guy you were. There were good guys and bad guys, cowboys, guys who 'knew their shit' and those who didn't. And there was the inevitable division between the smooth, multilingual and well-paid UN staff, known for their relative timidity in promoting humanitarian principles to Pakistan's military dictatorship, and the grotty NGO workers who glowed with self-righteousness. All complained about the honchos from headquarters, who had no idea about 'the field'. Conversations with aid workers were replete with invocations of remote gods – 'Geneva knows', 'New York is watching', 'Oslo is aware'. And when the 'goodwill ambassadors' Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie suddenly presented themselves, hardened 'grass roots' aid workers suddenly abandoned the mysterious joys of tents, drainage ditches and latrines in search of a fleeting moment of glamour.

Then there was the cast of complete weirdos – some well intentioned, others malign – that attends major catastrophes. There was a circus troupe that travelled through the mountains trying to cheer people up, and a Korean NGO promoting the health benefits of tofu consumption (with a tofu-eating cartoon character featuring, appropriately enough for an Islamic republic, a smiling pig). And there was a series of querulous American Vietnam vets who had been given sinecures with the US government aid agency as compensation for missing limbs. Congenitally opposed to the idea of an international community and viewing the UN as some kind of communist plot, these 'one-armed bandits', as they were known, strutted and twitched their way around the province. Britain also sent its finest minds. After a long meeting with an earnest Englishwoman from the UK's Department for International Development my boss turned to me with an acrid exhalation of cigarette smoke and growled, 'Horse's ass with teeth.'

Everyone had an agenda – personal, professional, institutional, political – and any action needed somehow to negotiate these. Institutions were at war; UN agencies and NGOs argued with each other and within themselves over responsibilities, visibility and turf. Bucks were passed and credit appropriated. Individuals on short-term emergency contracts were making connections for their next 'gig', while donors attempted to buy political favour through their generosity. Villagers were taught to say their tents were 'from the American people', and flags and logos jostled for precedence in the muddy and crowded camps that were now home to hundreds of thousands fleeing the encroaching snowline. At one meeting for the heads of the seven leading co-ordination agencies, I calculated 2,401 permutations of vested interests and agendas that any collective decision would somehow have to negotiate.

It was a desperate game of survival for not only the people affected by the earthquake but also the humanitarians. The institutional architecture for such a major international disaster response was weak and progress was dependent on the charismatic personalities who led the way. Reputations crumbled and were made; hardened aid workers went home early – shattered by the mud, cold, arguments and complex logistics of the operation. One room of our office was converted into a sick bay for stricken colleagues who had caved under the pressure and needed to recuperate. 'It's like the Somme,' said one friend on his way back down from the mountains, having decided he could not continue. Gone was his earlier self-confidence; we clapped and cheered as he climbed into a helicopter waiting to take him back to the capital. He had more than done his bit, and we sensed that this mission was to be his last.


SOMEHOW, DESPITE THE immense obstacles, pressure and confusion of the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, a coherent and effective humanitarian response emerged, more by trial and error, it seemed, than by design. And for all the follies and foibles, personalities and turf wars, it was amazing to be part of it. Alliances formed, organisations stabilised, and the initial panic, desperation and reactivity transformed into a collective purpose. It was like catching a wave – the momentum bore us along. During those months in this fascinating, politically fractured country everyone seemed finally to think and act as one.

In the distant hills of Khala Dhaka ('Black Mountain') – a tribal territory well beyond the 'writ of the state' and now the NATO frontier in an ever-expanding Afghan war – I met with groups of bearded elders wrapped in coarse woollen cloaks and smelling of wood smoke. We discussed the earthquake and its consequences in the tribal belt and beyond, and they were exceptionally well informed – partly through their networks of tribe and extended family across Pakistan and Afghanistan, and partly from listening to the BBC Pashto Service.

We are a neutral humanitarian agency, I said. We had no politics and would only work with them if they needed and wanted us. If not, we would go away – the choice was theirs. We discussed the Green Howards (a British Army regiment), the last Europeans to have entered the area prior to the Independence and Partition of the Indian subcontinent, and I assured them I was anything but a Green Howard.

Had they been badly affected, I asked?

'Ha,' they replied – the guttural Pashto word for 'yes'.

Could we conduct an assessment?


Would we be able to speak to women and children?


Could we ensure that the most vulnerable people were assisted first?


Would we be able to come back and monitor the aid distribution, to ensure all needs had been met?

'Ha,' again came the reply.

We called for green tea to cement our deal – a sign that the substantive discussions were over and that trust had been established. And then they left, each one shaking hands and embracing, walking quickly back to the Black Mountain – a distant chorus of 'Ha... Ha... Ha' fading gently into the wood smoke and the night.

This is how we survived the earthquake – rare moments of solidarity in the turmoil of the Frontier Province – but now can we survive the drone attacks, and can we survive the war?


[i] Now known as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) in deference to Pashtun ethno-nationalist aspirations

[ii] In Pakistan today, there is a remote area called the Kalash Valley inhabited by an animist tribe of fair-skinned, light-eyed people who drink wine from amphorae and who are said to be the descendants of Alexander's armies.

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