February 7, 2001


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The Rediff Special/ Josy Joseph

'I desperately wanted to be with my mother'

Early morning, Republic Day. A group of over 400 school children and 100 odd teachers are marching through a congested street in the walled city of Anjaar, Kutch, Gujarat. The street became a death camp for most of them. Those who managed to escape suffer severe mental trauma. They are unable to sleep at night and remain frightened through the day. Special Correspondent Josy Joseph met four such survivors.

Vijay Nath Narayan Nath, 14, studied in Class 9 at the Swami Vivekananda Vidyalaya, Anjaar. He keeps returning to the site, where his friends are buried under the rubble.

There were about 400 to 450 students in the rally; most of them were from Class VII. The 20 students who were sent from my school were either scouts or NCC cadets; we were virtually leading the rally. My friends Jayender and Bhavesh Goswami were also there.

It would have been around 8.45 am when the earthquake started. At first, we did not understand what was going on. The buildings were shaking, there was so much noise. We -- I mean those of us who were at the front of the rally -- were nearing Khatri Chowk. We had just stepped into the open from the street, which had buildings on both sides.

Jayender and me were standing close together. When the earthquake started, we held each other's hands tightly but, in the chaos that followed, we lost our grip. There was a lot of dust, smoke and noise. Then, the buildings started collapsing.

All the students and teachers had started running. I could not understand what was happening. I kept looking for Jayender, but I could not see him. There was a lot of confusion. I thought that, like everyone else, he must have run home, so I also started running very fast. Buildings were collapsing in front of me. I covered my head and continued running. At several places, I had to stop and hide under some kind of shelter to escape the falling debris.

I was terrified by the time I reached home. I told my mother what was happening. It was with God's grace that I managed to escape.

Around 3.30 in the afternoon, I returned to Khatri Chowk. That's when I realised the extent of what had happened. I was told that Bhavesh and 10 other classmates were buried in the debris; that only around 30 of us had escaped. Jayender too was trapped. Just as we lost our grip, a portion of a building had collapsed on him. I did not realise it then. I keep going back to the chowk.

Now, we all sleep in the open. I am not frightened any more. I will go back to school as soon as it reopens.

Batakbhai Pandya is principal of the Primary Girls School Number One, Anjaar. One of the few teachers who survived, 50-year-old Batakbhai is also a state-level leader of Gujarat's primary school teachers association. He sleeps through most of the day and night, nursing his sprained left foot. He has not stepped out of his house ever since he was brought home from the accident site.

The Class VII students from 10 of Anjaar's 20 schools were participating in the prabhat pheri. Every year, on August 15 and January 26, we do the prabhat pheri; it begins from School Number Four at Savasar Gate near the Swaminarayan Mandir. After passing through the entire city, the march ends at Town Hall. Around 400 students and 100 teachers were participating in this year's march.

I was at the fag end of the parade with two other teachers, both of whom were my friends. B P Patel was the principal of Primary School Number Five and C V Vaania was the principal of School Number 10. When the march neared Khatri Chowk, we met an acquaintance and stopped to talk to him. At that time, we were at Maala Seri, one of Anjaar's bylanes.

Suddenly, the earth under our feet began to shake; there was a lot of noise and the buildings around us began swaying. We ran to one side of the lane and stood there. Suddenly, to our right, a building that housed a shopping complex collapsed. A beam fell on Vaania, who fell on me with such force that I was thrown away from the falling building. Everything began to fall on Vaania. Both of us started shouting for help.

Soon, another building to our left collapsed; we were boxed in between the debris of the two buildings.

Patel was about 10 feet ahead of us when the buildings began to fall. A Jain mandir fell on him, hurting him badly.

There was a girl -- she was just standing on the street, she was not part of the rally -- who had been injured by the debris. She must have been about 18, 20 years old. She had fallen so close to me that I was actually seeing her dying and could do nothing about it. I could see her crying, then she stopped. After some time, her mouth fell wide open, but she had stopped breathing. I knew she was dead.

After around two or three hours, people in nearby buildings -- those who had survived the quake -- began to removing the debris. Vaania and I started starting shouting for help. Vaania's legs and back were bent at a strange angle. He was in severe pain. My leg was trapped below his body. When they finally pulled him out, he could not even speak. But when they made him sit up, he asked for water. I was standing there, looking at him. By the time someone got him water, he was dead.

Patel escaped with an injured hand after about 20 people removed the slabs of the temple under which he was trapped.

Neha and Ashar Harthik Shaileshwar study in Class VII and V respectively. They had planned to go for the rally together. But Neha got up late, so Ashar went directly to Town Hall; he did not want to participate in the rally without his sister. Both say they are determined to return to school as soon it reopens.

NEHA: I got up late on January 26 because my mother forgot to wake me up. So I could not go for the rally. I was very angry with her and with my brother, who had already left the house. I really wanted to attend the rally. I love the prabhat pheri, it is so colourful. As we walk through the streets, everyone looks at us with admiration.

ASHAR: Like Neha, I too was late. But Neha was still sleeping, so I decided to go to Town Hall directly. I love these marches. The part that I like the best is when they release the white pigeons in the air at Town Hall. I love the sight of the white pigeons flying into the sky.

About 100 students had come directly to Town Hall. We were waiting on the ground when the earthquake began. I could not understand what was happening. The earth had begun to shake. I could see Town Hall shaking, the buildings shaking. I was very frightened as I stood there, watching the buildings collapse.

I started to cry; I desperately wanted to be with my mother. I wanted to run, but I could not move. The rally never came. After a long time, an uncle who works in my fatherís shop came and took me home. I could not stop crying.

Design: Dominic Xavier

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