‘The valleys will soon be like Islamabad’

Maureen Lines recalls the October 26 earthquake, as witnessed by the residents of valleys

‘The valleys will soon be like Islamabad’
For those of you who believe in Murphy’s Law, allow me to describe the 10 days before I managed to get out of my home in Birir, over the Lowari Top and down to my office in Peshawar.

At this time of the year, women were engrossed in collecting corn cobs and beans, while the men were transporting bundles of grass and corn stalks to storage houses. To contribute to this activity, children had been picking walnuts. These had already been harvested but some remained for nature to discard. They were scooped up by eager young hands as the children played about.

I was trying to improve my walking, so as to walk to Guru to climb the hillside and see where we could build four new latrines. There were several sites under consideration and each had required serious thought.

Broken cement walls in Birir
Broken cement walls in Birir

Then late one afternoon, the clouds gathered; they looked dark and menacing. That night it rained and the Gol flooded.... ”Not again!” I thought.

The wood for roof repairs had been left in the Gol. It swept down to the main river in the rain.

At first light, Javed raced down to the end of the Gol, ignoring his mother’s cries. He found the wood and, according to accounts, he found enough for two grown men to carry. Javed, all eight years of him, told them to get lost and leave his wood alone. He then proceeded to pulling the heavy logs to the river bank. He arrived home wet, from head to toe.
When I first came to the valleys in 1980, there was no electricity but there was plenty of cedar wood for flares to light your way

This was the beginning of five miserable, wet, cold and dark days. I have spent many Novembers and Decembers in Birir and Rumbur, but had never ever known it to be so cold. The women were in distress. The beans were ruined. Not all the animal fodder was under shade. Only the children, who ventured out for their favourite activity (walnut-picking), enjoyed themselves, though even they never stopped complaining about the cold. Our Autumn festival was not a time for celebration this year.

We had no electricity as the cement around the machinery of our small electrical power station had broken due to a tremor a few days earlier. Our emergency lights were running out of battery as were our wireless phones.

Then one morning the sky brightened. I was sitting by the fire in the kitchen, Bau was outside feeding the goats, when I felt a tremor beneath my feet. Then the tremor grew more violent and suddenly, the entire house was shaking.

Bau came rushing in as I was getting my feet off the stool.

“You will be fine. Don’t worry! I have called the police. I will go find the children.”

As she rushed out, two of my security wallahs rushed in. The tremors were dying down.

“You okay, Baba?”

“Yes, no problem, I am fine. No problem.”

They looked at me with worried expressions. ‘You want to come outside?”

“No, it’s okay.” The tremor had subsided.

Bau returned with Javed and another child who had been climbing the hillside. She stood for a moment with her back to the wall, breathing heavily. “Phew! Much tension!” she said in Kalasha.

The road damaged by floods in Birir
The road damaged by floods in Birir

When the dust settled, we found out that although the earthquake had caused many fatalities and destroyed scores of homes schools and hotels in Chitral, including the top half of the iconic Mountain Inn and the Garden Hotel, the valleys had suffered relatively minor damage.

Again, I recalled how the Kalash had always built their houses to withstand earthquakes. Cement, which I have fought against for years, especially when used by the corrupt, is always prone to crack.

In Birir, some water channels had broken or split into two. The other electrical power station had suffered a lot of damage. One Bashali House in the village of Bishal was also destroyed. As many as 30 mud and stone houses in Bumburet, along with a jestakhan also had been damaged as well as a jestakhan in Rumbur.

Now I am down here again in order to raise the alarm before the winter sets in for good, although we all wonder if it can still get any colder. We must get the electricity working.

I was sitting by the fire in the kitchen when I felt a tremor beneath my feet. Then the tremor grew more violent

When I first came to the valleys in 1980, there was no electricity, but that was no problem. There was plenty of cedar wood for flares to light your way, lanterns with kerosene to light up the rooms, plenty of holly oak wood for the fires. Telephones were unheard of back then and not needed as such, as the bush telegraph was very fast and life did not have the same urgency.

The climate has now changed so much that there is always an emergency.

It should also be pointed out in the very strongest of terms that these line departments and inexperienced NGOs should be banned from the valleys, not only to preserve the culture, but for public safety.

Locals know how to build houses to withstand earthquakes. In Birir, a few houses had cracks, and a new bridge we had built has withstood three floods and the earthquake because we know how to build with the wood and cement where absolutely needed. One dangerous retaining wall built by outsiders has become even more dangerous.

A month or so ago, I was on the telephone with someone involved in development in the valleys. His parting shot was, “Don’t worry, Maureen, by the end of 2018, the valleys will be like Islamabad.”

For once in my life, I was speechless.