Going Home to Gujarat: A Journey Through India's Earthquake

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Residents of Bhuj search the rubble

Haji Imtiaz prays or cries throughout the flight from Bombay to Bhuj. "I had bought presents for everyone," he mutters irrationally. "I am sure Allah will keep them safe." Then fear strikes again. "I haven't seen them in two years. What if I never meet them again? My brother had a son 10 days ago. Now I will never get to see him."

He had heard the news the previous day, 12 hours after a massive earthquake had reduced his hometown to rubble. He had returned home from work at a Muscat jewelry showroom and turned on the TV news, to be greeted with images of devastation in Bhuj, and throughout Gujarat. He tried desperately all night to call his family, but of course the phone lines had collapsed. So he took the first available plane to Bombay and then begged for a seat on a special Indian Airlines flight to Bhuj. Eyes red from weeping and lack of sleep, he kept telling airport officials, "Everyone is there. My entire life. I have to go to them."

Having reached Bhuj, his next major hurdle is to get from the airport to his family home. The only gas station still operating is limiting each customer to one liter, and taxis are charging exorbitant fares. Imtiaz finally persuades a three-wheeler scooter driver to take him — at three times the regular price.

Mass cremations

Driving through the town, Imtiaz is plainly horrified. The main road from the airport has a 12-inch gash in the middle, and every so often, the ground still heaves. Along the road, the remnants of houses lie broken. There are piles of chopped wood, in preparation for the mass cremation in the evening when more bodies have been pulled out of the rubble. People are living on the streets, the women inside makeshift enclosures of tied sheets or saris.

"That is the fort wall," he says pointing to crumbled pile of ancient stones, once a medieval bastion. "My uncle lives inside. I don't think he could have survived." Does he want to stop and ask? "No," he says firmly. "I need to find my parents." He starts weeping again and then stops, distracted. "Oh, that used to be the jail," he says staring at a high yellow wall. "It is broken. The convicts must have escaped." At least a 100 did, but several others died.

Like dolls' houses

As the scooter nears his home, his anxiety increases. "That used to be a big building," he says. "My friend ran a gym in the basement." All that remains is a sign advertising the health club. The structure is merely a pile of concrete slabs. Several four-story buildings have sunk awkwardly into the ground, tilting precariously. Others have shed large chunks, exposing interiors where furniture is still neatly arranged. They look like giant open-front dolls' houses.

Passing the rubble of a huge building, the driver says almost with satisfaction that it used to be the main government hospital. Army personnel are walking about looking for survivors — or casualties. "This used to be the labor room," says one man. "There must have been several people inside." His colleague rips off the cloth tied around his nose and sniffs through a gap. "There do seem to be some bodies," he says.

There is no escaping stench of dead and burning flesh in Bhuj. "This place is littered with bodies," says Captain M. S. Kalra, who is leading the search team at the pulverized hospital.

Help came too late for the living

The roads are packed with camel- and horse-drawn carts from outlying villages, bringing in dazed survivors and what remains of their belongings. Some volunteers have managed to drive up in vans, bringing more injured people. Relief work has only just started in the rural areas. And there are reports that entire villages have been flattened. One man, dressed in traditional frocklike shirt and pajamas — costumes most Indians usually see only in cultural shows — shakes his turbaned head helplessly. He has traveled for three days with his injured mother. "So many people have died," he says. Has help arrived? "Yes," he answers, "but only to help the dead."

The villagers are getting rid of the rotting bodies. "We burnt 800 yesterday," says Sejubhai, who lived near Ratnam, one of the areas that have been completely devastated. "Then we ran out of wood."

No one will ever know just how many died in the earthquake that devastated Gujarat on January 26. In the remote areas people are born — and they die — without ever being listed in any official record. In the confusion after a disaster, the urgency is to get rid of bodies to prevent disease. No one keeps count. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has quite honestly admitted that no accurate body count is possible. The official estimate is about 30,000, but defense minister George Fernandes warned it might even be as high as 100,000.

Imtiaz is now close to his home, in a warren-like neighborhood of single-story stone structures nestled below a hill housing an army ammunition dump. Bhuj is the largest town near India's border with southern Pakistan. It also is an important airbase. In fact, Daiben, a village woman who lives near the border says she had not been surprised to hear the loud sound of the earthquake. "I thought they were flying some new kind of planes," she says. "It was only when the ground began shaking that I realized it was something much worse."

Digging by hand

The area where Imtiaz grew up is called Camp. He keeps staring at landmarks, or what remains of them. "My childhood was spent on these streets," says the 25-year-old dressed in the shiny clothes of newfound wealth. "Now nothing is left." The auto-rickshaw hurtles over the rubble on the path. Several homes have collapsed, and the lane is blocked. Soldiers are at work with shovels, sifting through the fallen boulders. "We can't bring heavy equipment here," one explains. "The streets are too narrow."

A success story devastated

India's record of disaster management has always been shoddy, and this time, too, the response has been slow. But Gujarat is a wealthy state — its 8 percent growth rate made it the fastest-growing state in India before the earthquake struck. The earthquake is expected to cost the state's economy at least $5 billion. But private initiative has been tremendous. There have been very few reports of robbery, usually so common during distress. People are sheltering neighbors, preparing food packets and donating generously. The government was quick to call in international experts who are scouring the rubble with life-detectors and sniffer dogs. But it is apparent that there is no coordination at all. Teams of doctors are flying in, but there is a shortage of medicine and bandages. Not because there is no supply; but because there is no organized distribution.

Imtiaz, by now, is restless. He urges the driver to try another route. As he draws close, he is almost bracing himself. People peer in and recognize him. They smile and wave as they sit outside the ruin that was once their home. One old woman is flailing her arms, screaming in the middle of the road. "Run, run," she shouts. People don't even stop to look. "She has lost everyone in her family," a boy explains to Imtiaz. "She has gone mad."

The auto-rickshaw stumbles over a bend. "Stop. We have reached," says Imtiaz. It is miraculous. There is only one house intact in the shattered street. With loud shrieks his mother, two sisters and sister-in-law pour out of their home. His father, a bus driver, and brother, a house painter, are crying. The infant is brought out. "He is the one that saved us," says his grandmother, Zeenat. "Everything had fallen from the shelves, but nothing landed on him." Zeenat is rubbing her eyes with the scarf that covers her head. There is no food in the house and just two vessels of drinking water collected from the tanker that delivers it once a day. But Imtiaz, the great hope of the family, the first ever college graduate and the sender of money from distant lands, is home. "Make him tea," Zeenat tells her daughter.

Then they sit back and share their news. Several friends have died. So has an aunt. Some cousins are injured. There is no news of the uncle who lived near the fort. Imtiaz cannot help but bless his own good fortune. Stroking his nephew he says, "Allah is the one that takes and He is the one that preserves. We can only live by His will."