Alistair Caldicott

Batting for Pakistan

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15 - Shaken and Stirred by an Earthquake

In my stately Riverside Lodge royal residence I was fed up of eating at a table for one in the vast, very cold and slightly stuffy dining room. So I wondered into the cosy warmth of the kitchen to have my food in there with the workers, who knew me quite well by now.

I enquired about the green tea I was drinking, something I had enjoyed regularly throughout Pakistan.

Which region of the country did you say this tea came from? I asked.


Kenya. Where is that? Oh Kenya!

Even though I was standing next to them in the cosy kitchen, one of the men still took my food all the way out to the dining room and set the table, before realising and bringing everything back into the kitchen for me.

Some of these men were on duty working from 6 am in the morning until 10 pm at night for the equivalent of 4 per week wages. People made livings by the simplest means possible. These were decent, hard-working people earning less in a whole week than the minimum hourly wage in my own country.

When I spend a little time amongst them, eating with them, watching what they did, it engendered a good deal of compassion. These were mostly the same people I had been charging around playing cricket with earlier until the moonlight arrived.

They could never do enough for me. Whether it was insisting on giving up the best chair in the kitchen for me to sit on, or pushing the only portable fire towards me so that I would be warm even if they were not. The man was shivering as much as, if not more than, I was, but he insisted on giving up his perch nearest to the stove. There was no arguing. I accepted, but then quietly turned the fire more in his direction.

Huddled into a cosy kitchen, I was able to put things in perspective slightly. These men had food (quite often the leftovers from what was cooked for me) and just about remained warm in a very cold place. There were many thousands, probably millions, who were far worse particularly after the devastating earthquake further south.

The biting cold, I shall never forget. But also the remarkable warmth of the people in places like this one. Every now and again I would feel an occasional burst of frustrated anger at just how stupid and ignorant people in governments could be - spending over half of their budget on weapons for the army, instead of doing anything meaningful to shelter or feed their own people, or at least giving them the means to do so.

It hinted at what was one of the most simple, but effective, things which could be done to make the country better off, more stable and less prone to extremism with beneficial consequences beyond Pakistans own borders as well:
Grow the economy to make people better off. Educate boys and especially girls better with more, better spent money and better teachers.

No more than one out of two people can read or write. It might be in the interests of a select few in the elite for things to stay that way, for example if they want to avoid requests for higher wages and better working conditions. But if normal schools are improved, the role of the madrassas may decline and the breeding grounds of extremism could diminish to obscurity.

If a tiny fraction of the hundreds billions that the Americans and others spend on their military wars on terror was invested into giving millions of Pakistan school children a normal, decent education away from the madrassas, it might be another way to defeat a troublesome enemy at source in the long term.

By nightfall, the temperature plunges and you dont want to be outside for any length of time if you can avoid it. The noise of the river around the town of Chitral seemed to become louder, and the mountains, with scrapings of snow on them, appeared to loom intimately closer. They hovered over you in a benignly intimidating way.

2:50 am. As I write this, I have only just finished shaking. This is not result of the biting cold, but a very large earthquake. It was very surreal, and momentarily terrifying.

I had been disturbed from my heavy sleep by a deep rumbling sound. My bed was moving and rattling. The walls and roof of my room were vibrating and shuddering. It still took quite a few seconds for me to come round. With a chilling reality, the realisation dawned that,

(a) this was not part of my dream

(b) there was no one outside my door or window doing this as a practical joke.

My first sleepy instinct had been that a giant angry man was trying to break into or shake my room, as it shuddered uncontrollably. But this was for real. A proper earthquake was in full flow.

Firstly I came round to the confirmation that is was an earthquake. Secondly, I had to ask myself the question, what exactly are you supposed to do in an earthquake?

Everything around me kept on rumbling to the point where I reached full, alert sharpness as to the consequences of what might happen.

With hindsight, it sounds so implausibly stupid to say so, but I genuinely expected some part of the moving building around me to give way and collapse at any moment. A few more precious seconds were expended working out which part of my room would give way first and how quickly it might do so.

Then my thoughts rapidly turned to what I should do and where I should go. What was I supposed to do? Where was I supposed to go? Was it better to stay put where I was warm? What about my electric heater next to my wooden bed and the high risk of a fire? Was it good to be near a river in the middle of an earthquake, or indeed surrounded by steep mountains with heavy snow on? I was becoming stranded by my own frightened indecisiveness.

In the shock of the moment, it dawned on me that I should not be inside at all. So I ran outside very quickly. Only after a few minutes outside, did I begin to feel the brutal cold. My room was a long way from where the other main buildings were. I could make out some torch lights in the distance and hear some voices. The rumbling had definitely stopped now.

Eventually, my breathing resumed a slower, more normal rhythm before I decided to go back to the warmth of my bed. Several different thoughts were racing through my head.

Maybe I had been lucky. My building next to the river was reasonably modern. What if there had been carnage and destruction elsewhere, where buildings were more shakily built and more heavily occupied? What if there had been big avalanches or landslides? I might be stuck here. Then I tried to stop thinking selfish thoughts.

I only learnt the facts and statistics of the earthquake well afterwards. It measured 6.7 on the Richter Scale, mightily sizeable by any standards. It epicentre was 65 miles south east of Faizabad in the remote , but neighbouring Afghan province of Badakhshan. The earthquake had been felt as far away as Delhi.

Understandably, such a big earthquake so soon after the main one caused absolute panic. People had started to flee their homes in the middle of the night, screaming and reciting from the Koran. Since the main earthquake, there had been over one thousand aftershocks in the space of just a few months, but this had been by far the strongest tremor. An earthquake in the same area in March 2002 measured less on the Richter Scale (6.1), but completely destroyed several villages and killed over one thousand people.

Chitral generally had around twelve to fifteen earthquakes every year. As such, many of the buildings in the town were made using bases of wood rather than concrete because wood was better at absorbing the shocks. It was also perhaps fortunate that the Hindu Kush was so sparsely populated.

Fifty million years ago, the Indian plate started to collide with the rest of Asia. It was still moving into it at a rate of around two inches every year. Both plates were being forced upwards. As a result all the mountains across the region, from the Hindu Kush across to the Himalayas, were wreckage of this one huge and mighty head-on collision.

The next morning I was able to reflect on the irony of a conversation I had had with Adrian the night before the earthquake. We had both remarked to each other, contrary to much received wisdom from outside the country's borders, about how totally safe Pakistan had proved to be.

However, Adrian's track record was not great and should have maybe served as a warning to me. Barely a day after he had gone to the trouble to get his Pakistani visa, the hugely devastating earthquake occurred. Less than a year previously, the massive Asian tsunami also waited until he had made his travel arrangements to go out the day before. Wherever he planned to go next year, I resolved to avoid, as well as alerting the disaster relief authorities in advance.

It was a smooth and friendly procession through the airport itself, which was no more than a small building and a runway. There was no departure lounge. I was even able to go for a toilet stop on the edge of the runway. The plane even took off earlier than it was supposed to do.

Suddenly I was looking down on the snow capped giants of the Hindu Kush, which I had become so used to looking up to. It was a delightful panorama. Mighty rivers glistened dazzlingly. The terraced valleys began to look like the crumpled indents on the palm of a rough hand, or giant webbed feet brightly lit up by the dazzling winter sun. Villages clung by their toenails to scribbled lines of mountain roads which rose upwards like a stock market graph turned on its side.

I still had earthquakes on my mind. Earthquakes of lesser magnitude had killed thousands and destroyed cities. More than 73,000 people died and three million lost homes in the main earthquake.

I had seen many things around the world, some of the world's most substantial mountains, awe-inspiring deserts and epic waterfalls, incredibly powerful forces of nature. But never before had the immense geological forces of the earth's surface felt so intimately personal as in the middle of a major earthquake.

Pakistan had well and truly been a country to jolt my senses and my body.

The flight was far too short. Before too long, the white snow caps metamorphosed into flat brown, then green and yellow plains with palm trees. Inevitably, I could just about make out boys playing games of cricket. It was the fringes of Peshawar, a city of energy and life, which was becoming the axis point for many of my travels in Pakistan.

However, its chaotic bustle had an air of personal familiarity, which I was now willing to exchange for something and somewhere else. I was on my way to Islamabad, Pakistan's capital.

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