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Stranded on a mountainside, Baptist workers minister to Pakistan’s earthquake survivors

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (BP)–Stranded for the night without adequate protection against the frigid mountain air, Southern Baptist worker Josie Gabdon* shivered under a thin shawl as she replayed in her mind chilling scenes from the day -– hurting patients, collapsed school buildings, freshly dug graves.

“All the places that we have been, there’s not a single person who hasn’t lost a family member –- at least two or three family members,” Gabdon said. “I think it was very important for the people to show us the graves of their family members -– and to make sure that we heard about the ones who were lost.”

Gabdon’s objective for coming to their village was to help the living -– those who survived the Oct. 8 earthquake -– become well.

She and her team of Great Commission Christians with a variety of medical skills had gone Oct. 15 to the isolated village by helicopter, since landslides made the village inaccessible by truck. The team thought they would leave the same evening, but numerous patients still needed to be evacuated.

At a boys’ school, the roof had fallen to the top of the desks, killing six students. “You can still see the desks there,” Gabdon, a registered nurse, said. “The girls’ school didn’t survive. They’re side by side. Because of the way the roof collapsed in the boys’ school, the major injuries we saw were head injuries.”

The helicopter returned the first time to take 12 seriously injured patients to a city medical hub for care.

“Most of the patients we saw had compound fractures, crushing injuries, a lot of scrapes and cuts, and really deep wounds from cement and rocks from their walls,” she said. “We saw several who had been pinned underneath the rubble, and their family members got them out.”

When the helicopter returned a second time, the team planned to leave with the patients. However, the team -– putting the patients’ needs before their own comfort -– loaded 30 more patients and hoped the helicopter could return for the team before nightfall.

“They had come back for another load of casualties,” Gabdon said. “We weren’t ready to leave yet. They said, ‘We can’t promise that we’ll come back.’ They said they might be back in an hour and a half. We waited until we knew there wasn’t any hope of them to come back.

“At least we got everybody out that really needed to get down the mountain that day.”

A 7.6-magnitude earthquake shook buildings from central Afghanistan to western Bangladesh the morning of Oct. 8. Pakistan’s northwest frontier and the region of Kashmir were hardest-hit. According to the United Nations, at least 50,000 people died and 75,000 were injured. About 3 million are without shelter.

A week later, as the night temperatures dipped to the low 40s and the days’ events weighed heavily, aftershocks increased the team’s anxiety level.

“It was so cold,” Gabdon said. “I was shivering and, you know, trying to process the things I had seen during the days.

“Just about then, the sound of the aftershock came in, because it comes in with a low roar up in the mountains. It is like a wave crashing, and then the ground just shook. My heart just started racing. I said, ‘I know we are not going to die in this little aftershock.’”

Gabdon began to pray for God to hold back the rain. Clear weather would allow the helicopter to come for them early in the morning.

“The next morning, when we got up before dawn, I was just kind of losing hope that my prayer was going to be answered,” she said.

The rain came, and so did the snow.

Up the mountain, “it snowed about 300 feet above us,” Gabdon said. “When it rained, it snowed. The snow was sticking to the trees and the ground probably half an inch.”

As the team waited for the weather to clear, one man came to Gabdon and pleaded for medicine for his wife, saying she was too frail to make the 20-minute hike herself. Gabdon does not dispense medicine for people she does not examine, so she agreed to go to the woman.

“These people are out in the elements, and rain is just miserable,” Gabdon said. “There is going to be a lot of pneumonia and things like that.

“We got there, and this lady probably weighs 70 pounds, just skin and bones. She did have pneumonia.

“After that house, it was like each household had somebody they wanted us to see that they hadn’t brought down to where we were. They didn’t have their houses anymore because they were totally destroyed, but they made some kind of provisions for sleeping and cooking. Some of them used a piece of tin or wood that they could pull from their houses to make lean-tos.”

At one home, Gabdon treated Shamim, who is six months pregnant.

“She had been crushed under the roof of her home,” Gabdon said. “For four days after the earthquake, she didn’t feel the baby move. She was very concerned that she was going to lose that baby, too. She lost one child. She had two others.

“Right when I put my hand on her belly to put the stethoscope down, it kicked my hand,” Gabdon said. “I told her, ‘I think the baby is fine.’”

After the exam, Gabdon had an opportunity to talk with Shamim and pray for her. Before she prayed, Gabdon explained to Shamim in Urdu what she would pray in English.

“I am going to pray that the Lord will give blessings on your family, and I am going to pray that you find food and shelter for the winter,” Gabdon told Shamim. “I am going to pray in the name of Jesus.”

Shamim was very grateful, Gabdon said.

The relief workers have been surprised by the open-armed welcome from the Pakistanis who often are portrayed in the U.S. media as belligerent to Americans [audio].

“In every single one of those homes, they offered us chai [tea], and they said, ‘We can pull corn out of the fields and cook it for you.’ We said, ‘No, you need to keep all your food,’ but they said, ‘No, we are so thankful that you came to help us.’

“Several of the families, we could sit with them and really hear about their situation and help them talk through their grieving process and help them get through how to get their lives back together,” Gabdon said.

“The ones with minor pains, they just wanted to say, ‘The roof fell down and hit me on the shoulder. Would you just check it and make sure it is OK?’ They needed the reassurance, and they needed to say what had happened to them.”

By the end of the second day, the weather cleared enough for the helicopter to return. Gabdon and her team loaded six more patients, gave away their shawls and left the village -– thanking God for delaying their departure and already asking Him to provide opportunities to fly to other villages. Even if it means another cold night stranded on a mountainside, the people of Pakistan are worth it, Gabdon said.

“I felt like we were able to meet not only physical needs but also spiritual needs,” Gabdon said. “It was good that we had that extra whole day, so that we had time to do that. God knows what is best, and we had opportunities that we might not have had if it had not rained and we had left right away.

“As we were leaving, the Pakistani doctor from that village said, ‘I just feel so guilty. I didn’t provide a meal for you. My family doesn’t have a home anymore, so I couldn’t ask them to cook anything.’ He said he felt ashamed. That’s the level of hospitality these people have.

“People in Pakistan are a loving and kind people. They are very hospitable. They are people who love their families, love their children. They’re really working hard to make things better for the next generation and to make ends meet,” Gabdon said. “Right now they are still reeling from this disaster, but underneath it all, they are really lost and in need of the Savior.”
*Name changed for security reasons.
— Listen to a report of the Pakistanis’ hearts of gratitude and hospitality despite the destruction that surrounds them: http://media1.imbresources.org/downloads/pakistan/vols_welcomed_thanked.mp3.
— The United Nations has said there are not enough tents in the world to provide for the needs in Pakistan. Hear more: http://media1.imbresources.org/downloads/pakistan/pray_winter_coming.mp3.
— Read related story, “Volunteers treat post-traumatic stress, pray for quake victims.”
— 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. Or go online to www.imb.org/worldhunger and select “Give Now.” One hundred percent of the gifts will go for relief aid.

    About the Author

  • Goldie Frances*