January 30, 2001


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Journey into the centre of darkness
Journey into the centre of darkness

The Rediff Special/Vaihayasi P Daniel

The phones started ringing incessantly just before noon on Republic Day.

Babubhai Meghjibhai Shah, former Congress MP and former minister from Kutch, called the Wagad Sanstha, a community organisation. A member of the Wagad Sanstha picked up the phone and frantically called his business associate, a printer, Champshi Fariya.

The news was shattering. Earth shattering and it clutched Fariya's heart.

Bhachau, his hometown, had been rocked by a quake of vicious intensity. There was no information to be had... good or bad. Just a deathly silence.

Hardly six hours later Fariya was on a train to Baroda. "I heard the news and I ran. My mother was in Bhachau. And my brothers, my sister and their families. Everybody lives in Bhachau apart from my own immediate family, about 40 people."

At Baroda they hired a Tata Sumo and he and nine other kinsmen, piled in and shot off for Bhachau. The 300 km journey, past waving fields of wheat, bajra and crops used for making Isabgol usually takes eight hours.

On January 27 it took a painful 24 hours. The highway was thick with bewildered folk walking aimlessly around. Villagers had run out from their devastated homes and were moving between hamlets to ferret out news of their relatives and to look for relief. Knots of helpless people lined the highway right to Bhachau making progress excruciatingly slow.

A strange kind of hush veiled the countryside. "As we drove along we knew exactly when we had entered the stricken area of Kutch. The fields and even the trees were unmoved... But it was in the people's faces. They were dust-covered. Old women sat crying. It was sunsaan (deathly quiet)."

When the Sumo rolled into Bhachau on the afternoon of January 28, Fariya and his companions were stunned. Speechless. Terrified.

In this prosperous town, inhabited by some 75,000 farmers and traders, there was not a single building standing. Some 'ground floor constructions' had survived, but essential buildings and landmarks like hospitals and government offices, large homes, shops had all been reduced to pitiful debris. Death cloaked the town. Every bleak heap of rubble was frightening.

"The place looked like a bhoot bangla (haunted house). It was very silent. And from everywhere you could hear people shouting, 'bachao, bachao (save us).' People sat around crying. At the moment I wondered why had I come here. I felt I should not have come. We were in shock and had no words to utter. But I am not a weak person and I was determined to see this through."

The journey on Station road, from the bus station to his family home, which usually takes five minutes, took three hours to negotiate. "Not a single structure had been left standing." Slabs, rubble, pieces of cement, beams had hijacked the path. Fariya weaved his way over and under heaps of rubble with a pounding heart. If only by a miracle of God, his family was safe. "It was like walking on top of piles of stones. But I kept hope. I felt sure that perhaps they could be alright."

When the printer arrived at the stack of rubble that was once his home he was dumbfounded. With happiness. There in the little garden in front was his family. He was overjoyed to find most of his family safe and sound. He had not expected much. And this was a lot. Fate had offered clemency. And here were his mother, his brothers and their families hale and hearty. "I was so happy that at least my mother was alive and well. And they were so happy that someone had arrived to take the burden off their shoulders."

But the Fariya family had not escaped tragedy. That was too much to expect. Fariya's sister, Lakshmiben Shyamji Nisra, 35, and his nephew, little Kishore, 2, perished that morning and had been pulled out of the rubble by neighbours and locals, and cremated the day before Fariya reached home.

"When they all heard the roar of the earthquake they all ran out and escaped. She and her son could not get out in time. It was a cold day so perhaps they were keeping themselves warm somewhere inside," explains Fariya sorrowfully, his composed, courageous face flickering for a moment with grief.

Bhachau was a mess. An utter mess. "I cannot even describe." There were no blankets. Not much water; wells and underground tanks were serving the needs. Forget electricity. No relief teams or aid had arrived. Neighbours, friends and kinsmen had gotten together to search and clear the rubble for corpses and cremations were taking place one after the next. The surviving doctors were treating victims in the middle of nowhere.

"I estimate that about 40,000 people have died. But it is hard to tell what the right number is."

The open spaces were full of dazed, stunned people, sitting around wondering what to do with themselves. Like a bunch of sleepwalkers. "They looked confused. Even the members of my family were dazed. They kept asking, 'How could this have happened?'"

There was no food in the town. How were people coping after two days without any food? "They were just told to hang on. Food would arrive."

Fariya drove 40 km to Radhanpur and found food for the family -- a bit of dal, rice and some rotis -- selling at a local restaurant at a nominal price. "After that, hotels and restaurants started distributing free meals to everyone" That night, Fariya camped with the rest of the family in the open, keeping themselves warm by the side of the bonfire.

The army entered Bhachau on January 29. A group of about 50 troops arrived. "They first surveyed the place and met the government officials who were around." Then they began pitching in with rescue efforts. "Even if they may not have known how to conduct rescues they learnt on the job." About 70 people were pulled out alive over the following days.

That same morning Fariya decided to ship his entire family out of Bhachau. "I just wanted that we all got out of there. We have left all our belongings there and hope God will take care."

He packed the older members of the family in a jeep and drove straight back to Bombay. The rest of the family followed thereafter. Thirty members of his family are now in Bombay living with various relatives.

He does not think anybody will return for a month or two. "I don't think Bhachau will be able to recover even in 50 years."

By January 29, before they left, the situation had improved marginally. Relief supplies started trickling in. Fariya has news that relief supplies have flooded into Bhachau. "Now there is a total overflow. But the situation is still very bad. There are still so many bodies lying in the rubble. There was no news of any illness till Friday evening. But apart from the arrival of food not much has changed."

People had not yet received material to construct temporary shelters. And theft is becoming a major plague. "Jewellery is being stolen off dead bodies. Ears are being cut off. Fingers... We filed a complaint.

"But while lots of aid and volunteers had reached Bhachau I doubt anything is reaching the interior. People there must be in bad shape." Indeed, word had come that the villagers had not received much, almost nothing at all.

A friend of Fariya's lives 20 km towards the interior in Manafara. He has reported that only five per cent of the houses are standing there. Of a population of 2,500, some 1,200 have perished. And theft is a serious issue.

"If the Maharashtra government plans to help Bhachau tehsil, they must make sure relief reaches the villages quickly and does not go into the wrong hands."

"I don't plan to send my mother back for a year. I think the situation over there will take a year to normalise. When we do rebuild our homes there, I have decided they all will be at ground level with a tile roof. So, if there are future earthquakes, nobody shall get hurt. No more first floors.

"My greatest unhappiness is: Whose sin is responsible for this?"

Design: Dominic Xavier

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