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Baptist workers struggle with tough conditions to deliver aid to quake survivors

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (BP)–Southern Baptist aid workers are contending with bone-chilling rains, roads jammed with homeless survivors and mobs desperate for help as they take relief supplies into the heart of Pakistan’s earthquake-devastated Kashmir.

With 11 workers on the ground, more on the way — and $150,000 in Southern Baptist disaster relief funds — the relief team is transporting truckloads of medical supplies, tents and food into mountain areas near the epicenter of the worst earthquake in modern Pakistani history.

“Our people are getting into areas that other organizations aren’t getting into because we know the local language,” the team’s coordinator said Oct. 11 from their temporary base in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. “The U.N. and all the big guys are taking care of easy-to-get-to places. We’re trying to get to places nobody will go.

“So many are homeless, and today it rained. People are hunkered down under whatever kind of shelter they can find, so we’re buying as many tents as we can find. We’re sending daily truckloads of food up into these areas. We’ve chosen one village that seems to be overlooked and we’re declaring it our responsibility to get them back up on their feet as quickly as possible. More than 68 people have died in this one village and God has impressed on us: This is ours, let’s get these people in homes or at least shelters, let’s get them food, let’s get some doctors in there.”

But getting there at all remains a challenge.

The damaged village, a two-hour walk off a mountain highway, lies beyond barriers of landslide debris left by the 7.6-magnitude quake and multitudes of homeless people crowding the road. Relief team members tried to reach the village in a Land Cruiser packed with tents and supplies, but traveled only 8 kilometers in three hours before turning back to a damaged Christian hospital where they are aiding survivors.

“The whole road is just full of people,” another Southern Baptist worker explained. “Their homes have been destroyed and they’re standing on the road, waiting for anything that comes by. We tried to stop and distribute some tents and it turned into a mob in about 10 seconds. We were trying to give tents to families, but at one time there were about 50 people gathered around the back of the Land Cruiser, almost attacking us.

“It reminds you of the Exodus. They’re walking; they’re on cars, on top of trucks. We couldn’t get [to the village], so we turned around and came back to the hospital. Last night we waited until it was completely dark and drove up a dry riverbed for quite a ways until we got to some villages on the side of the mountain. People were just sitting out on the edge of the riverbank. They had nowhere to go. We offered them some tents and made some good contacts.”

Meanwhile, the team has set up a large tent on the grounds of the damaged hospital near the quake’s epicenter. From that forward base, they’re distributing food and tents to homeless families.

One of the Southern Baptist workers, trained in emergency first aid, is working in tent “clinics” with a Pakistani doctor and three German pediatric nurses. They’re treating hundreds of injured survivors streaming in from flattened villages in the region.

“The injuries are all bad — a lot of broken bones, compound fractures, big lacerations,” he reported after returning for the night to Islamabad Oct. 11. “The hospital is so damaged we can’t go inside the building, because even this morning we had another [quake] tremor. So we’re sitting in these tents and we didn’t have enough supplies because the road was blocked. I splinted I don’t know how many bones. We used little wooden vegetable crates. We broke those into pieces and used bed sheets for splints. If you can imagine broken bones sticking out of skin from injuries that happened 48 hours ago — and they’ve been carried down out of the mountains. Some of them were pretty bad off. You patch them up the best you can and send ‘em home.”

One boy, carried in by his uncle, had survived the collapse of a school that killed his two brothers. His shoulder was crushed and he lay curled in a ball, moaning from internal injuries.

“He was in bad shape,” the worker said. “He had just lost his two brothers and he was there with his uncle because he didn’t know where his mother and father were. Every family up there has been shaken to the core. There’s a lot of panic mixed with grief mixed with desperation. But they’re receiving us with open hands and are so thankful for the work that we’re doing. We’re sharing God’s love in an area that hasn’t seen a lot of it.”

The Southern Baptist workers are urgently recruiting doctors and other medical volunteers to come to the area. Other disaster-trained volunteers likely will be mobilized later, but for now the difficult conditions and logistics call for patience.

“It’s very, very rugged,” the team coordinator said. “The volunteers we’re looking for have gotta be tough and they’ve got to be ready to sleep out under the stars.”

For more information on current and future volunteer needs, e-mail [email protected]. To contribute financially to relief efforts, send gifts designated for “South Asia Earthquake Relief” to P.O. Box 6767, Richmond. Va. 23230. All funds will go 100 percent for relief aid.

The Pakistani government’s earthquake death estimate remained at about 23,000 Oct. 12, but military officials in the quake region were placing the figure at above 35,000. In addition to the dead, Pakistani officials estimate more than 43,000 people were injured — a figure that is sure to climb rapidly. More than 2.5 million people lost their homes in the quake and its immediate aftermath, according to United Nations relief coordinators in Islamabad.

The Oct. 8 earthquake struck hardest along Pakistan’s northwest frontier and in the mountainous Kashmir region — fought over for decades by Pakistan and India. The quake claimed most of its victims in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, but reportedly killed more than 1,000 people on the Indian side. It shook buildings from central Afghanistan to western Bangladesh. The quake and resulting landslides buried thousands of Pakistani villagers in the rubble of their homes, schools and businesses.

No Southern Baptists serving in South Asia were hurt in the earthquake and its immediate aftermath. A Southern Baptist assessment team on the Indian side of the heavily militarized Pakistan-India border region in Kashmir is investigating urgent needs there and likely will request disaster relief funds in coming days.

Back in Pakistan, “the people are calling it the ‘mountain tsunami,’” said the Southern Baptist team coordinator. “They’ve never seen anything like this in a long time. But it’s pulling everybody together. I just had a [militant Muslim group] take pity on me because I couldn’t get all the tents I needed for distribution, and they shared some of their tents with me.”

Another worker will never forget the hollow look in the eyes of three Pakistani women aided by the team.

“They had lost every member of their family — husbands, sons, daughters,” he said. “We gave them some clean water and some food items. I can’t explain to you the look in these ladies’ eyes and other people in these villages that have lost their families. It’s the emptiest look I’ve ever seen. It breaks my heart because I know they don’t have any peace. They don’t know whether to be angry or be hurt or be mad. They have told us they feel like God is judging them — but they don’t know why.

“I want to tell them that He is a God of love.”

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges