There is no electricity, no water, no relief work. Just rubble and thousands of bodies

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news | World | Asia_China | 2001-01 There is no electricity, no water, no relief work. Just rubble and thousands of bodies

By Peter Popham in Bhuj

29 January 2001

In Bhuj, everyone told us, "Go to Bacchau, that's the worst place, everything in Bacchau has been levelled."

We spent Saturday night in Bhuj in our car there was no electricity in the town, no running water, no telephones, no relief work in progress, and we were lucky to cadge a plate of rice and potato for supper from a roadside soup kitchen. In the morning we drove 40km to Bacchau, a town of 25,000 people full of solid concrete buildings, nearly all of which have been crippled or smashed.

Forty-eight hours had now passed since the huge earthquake that struck Gujarat at 8.46 on Friday morning. Forty-eight hours is a long time to survive under a heap of stones or a chaos of concrete slabs and reinforcing rods. So on arriving in Bacchau, we were surprised to see a crowd gathered by the roadside, standing and watching with the peculiar intentness and stillness that crowds seem to exhibit when somewhere not far away, almost in sight, life hangs in the balance.

We walked up to the Sidha Bhachal apartments: four storeys, painted green, bald and hulking and apparently intact. But look again: four storeys now, it was six storeys on Friday morning. At 8.46am on Friday the ground and first floors simply disappeared. How could anyone have survived that? And if anyone had survived, could they still be alive?

But a platoon of the Indian Army's Engineers Regiment has arrived in Bacchau direct from the Punjab, and these muscular, practical turbaned Sikhs are getting down to the task that until now no one in the disaster area has begun to tackle. At the Sidha Bhachal apartments they had heard voices from the flattened first-floor apartments. Using simple tools sledgehammers, huge cold chisels they smashed through to the airlocks where the survivors' voices came from. Yesterday they brought three people out. "We're bringing two more out now," I was told, "a man and wife. No, they're not hurt. They'll walk out. They are just making themselves presentable." And here they came. The young woman came first, Rekha Pishar, dressed in a sari, her hair stiff with dust, her face, too, caked with it, and the expression on her face frozen with shock, pain or terror. She stumbled and tottered over the rubble by the entrance, then as she arrived at the road a male relative grasped her round the waist and lifted her bodily in the air and the crowd broke out clapping. She burst into tears, crying in violent spasms.

Her husband Kalpesh followed, ashen with dust, wearing a white vest and a lunghi, and then came a soldier carrying a boy, not their child, who had been pulled from the same building. All three were put into an ambulance.

The army's sappers have arrived and set to work briskly and effectively. But it has to be said that this is too little, too late and too ill-organised, because the disaster in Bacchau in particular, but also in Bhuj and in many other towns and villages in the Kutch district is of an awesome, formidable scale. So far the authorities have only been scratching at it.

With more dispatch if the right sort of military rescue teams had been airlifted to Bhuj's combined military and civilian airport on the day the disaster occurred surely many more would now still be alive who have died.

Take, for example, the dreadful sight that greets us only 100 yards away from the Sidha Bhachal apartments.

It's another heap of concrete. There are no other clues to what it used to be. But we are taken there by local people who explain patiently, in limited English, that this was the Municipal Girls' Primary School. Friday, January 26 was India's Republic Day, but sadly for these girls it was not a day off school: instead they mustered there for the annual Republic Day parade.

The mood must have been festive and happy; certainly the town was ready for it, the main shopping street, at one end of which the school is located, strung with multicoloured plastic pennants. Then the earthquake struck and the school collapsed, and all the girls and their teachers were buried alive. How many? Three people told us there were 300 of them. None have been taken out, either alive or dead because in more than 50 hours, it appears, not one stone has been shifted from the pile.

Clambering on to the collapsed roof, we saw the neat black plait, tied with a red ribbon, of one young victim, protruding from the roof rubble. Nothing else of her is visible.

The whole of Bacchau's main shopping street is devastated quite as completely. This must be the most dangerous sort of environment in which to be trapped during a major earthquake. The three- or four-storey shop buildings are both massive and flimsy, nearly all of concrete and all now smashed in pieces. While the girls were mustering for their parade, this typically congested, messy small-town Indian bazaar was getting ready for a hectic day of business.

The vegetable shop was already open cauliflowers and beans still scatter the road. The ironmonger's opposite had pulled up the shutters and his big, old-fashioned brass scales were set out for weighing nails and screws. A cosmetics stall down the road has been tossed in the air and landed on its head, scattering glass bangles, velveteen hair bands and lipsticks over the road.

At a corner of the street, a building has been pulverised beyond recognition. But the mailbox survives, full of letters that have been delivered but never removed. The road outside is littered with chappals, flip-flop sandals. This was a little ashram, a place of worship or meditation; a local man tells me that 30 to 35 people praying inside were killed on this spot.

Everywhere in Bacchau the clinging sweet smell of rotting flesh is rising mixed with the acrid fumes and black smoke of fires, as corpses pulled out of the wreckage are burned on the street with paraffin for fuel.

We walked for a hundred yards down the street, clambering over one building that had somehow become deposited laterally with its roof more or less intact, across the road, and saw no end of the devastation. The most recent figure is a possible 20,000 fatalities in the earthquake, 8,000 of whom are still under the rubble. Several thousand of those must be in the ruins of this town.

Yesterday was the day the diggers began to go to work. Gujarat is the richest and most modern state in India, and if the response to disaster has been too slow to save many lives, yesterday there was every indication that the mammoth task of bringing Kutch itself back to life has begun in earnest.

On Saturday, ours was one of very few cars on the road from Ahmedabad, Gujarat's biggest city, to Bhuj, nearly 400km away. But yesterday as we drove around Kutch, the roads were clogged with relief traffic: jeeps with roofracks piled with cartons, army convoys, ambulances and at least 50 JCB diggers on lorry transporters, some brand new, others diverted from construction tasks across the state, all thundering towards Bhuj.

What they will find in Bhuj, a town of 120,000 which is the historic capital of the stricken region, is a disturbing mixture of apparent normality and utter collapse. Unlike in Bacchau, many of the modern concrete buildings, apartment blocks of five or six storeys, look unscathed. But no one is staying indoors because even the buildings which are apparently undamaged may have been weakened and there are still aftershocks. With the town's infrastructure smashed, normal life is suspended. Only the ham radio freaks up from Bombay, busily relaying messages from survivors to relatives, and the volunteers of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in their khaki shorts, doling out medicine, food and old clothes, offer some shadowy sense of order.

Out in the country, though, it's a different and more encouraging story. We drove to the exact epicentre of the earthquake, a large village with a population of 5,000 called Lodia, 20km from Bhuj. Eighty per cent of the village's small stone houses have been flattened, and 25 people have died but the mood is not as in Bhuj of life put frighteningly on hold, but of the stoical old India getting on with the elemental things that matter.

Families clear space in the wreckage of their homes and make small fires to cook over. Others pull gingerly at the collapsed masonry, searching for sacks of wheat or rice. Here they know exactly how many died and why. "These houses abutted a narrow lane," a local man, explains. "When they collapsed, the exterior walls fell on to the lane, killing 23 people including 10 children.

"We are expecting help to come but no one has come so far. One constable and one head constable were in the village at the time of the earthquake and they have gone to Bhuj to report the situation. But no one has visited us yet."

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/World/Asia_China/2001-01/electricity290101.shtml



-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), January 28, 2001

Answers

The town that lay forgotten for 36 hours By Shyam Parekh

BHACHAU: This town ceased to exist on Friday morning. As hordes of VIPs, mediapersons from all over the world and relief workers descend on Bhuj, barely 60 km away, Bhachau and the hinterland of the taluka by the same name lie neglected and almost forgotten. Much like its dead under the rubble of what were once houses.

The tragedy that struck Bhachau is no less than Bhuj in severity and extent. The talk here is that of the taluka's nearly 200,000 people, several thousands lie buried under the debris. No knowing whether they are dead or alive, as even the most rudimentary rescue efforts -- much less relief --passed the area by in the crucial first 36 hours.

Bhachau town, the taluka headquarters famous for its temples, has been flattened completely. The destruction is absolute. There is nothing standing here; no manmade structure -- temple, mosque, hospital, police station, shop, house. Everything is gone.

No one is taking a count of the dead, as there's no administration left. But people talk of a toll of anything between 10,000 and 30,000 dead in the town and the 73 villages in the taluka.

Bhachau was a town of people left behind by others who went to Mumbai and elsewhere in search of better fortunes. They are now trickling in, scouring the streets, looking for their kin. But there's no building standing in which to look, and it is not within their means or power to look under the rubble.

In Dudhai Road on the outskirts, the Gujarat Electricity Board station has split into two and collapsed; the Vagad Seva Samaj Hospital is a heap of cots sandwiched between collapsed ceilings. The once-famous Garbi Chowk has turned into a makeshift crematorium.

Pushcarts, bedspreads, mattresses, anything handy, were used to serve as stretchers to carry the few survivors who could be pulled out of the debris. But with no hospital to go to, the injured were carried out of the town and left by the highways in the hope that some good Samaritan will pick them up and drop them at a place where medical attention was available.

The first VIP to land here was irrigation minister Nitin Patel. He arrived on Saturday evening and was gheraoed by angry people. Patel lost his temper and started yelling, telling them to go away. A few minutes later, he drove away. But he did return later at night with a bulldozer - so Bhachau saw the first rescue operation only on Saturday night.

A company of the State Reserve Police Force, which had come in from Rajkot, was too petrified by the quake and aftershocks to be effective. They just stood by the bodies. All that was visible of the administration was two policemen, who were joined by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh volunteers in mounting preliminary relief and rescue.

Local advocate Ashok Mehta was at a wedding when the quake struck. He rushed back home. On Saturday evening, he was lamenting near his wife's pyre in front of what was once his house: "Whom should I attend, the dead, my relatives with broken legs and hands or my daughter who is still trapped inside?" But his daughter was still alive and his job was to supply water and food to her through a crevice in the debris. He lives by hope - hope that sooner rather than later there will be a rescue team to extricate his daughter from that mass of mangled concrete

http://www.timesofindia.com/today/29home2.htm

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), January 28, 2001.


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