By Stephen McKinley
Devastated by an earthquake on Jan. 26, the Indian province of Gujarat has received assistance from many disaster relief groups, including the Irish aid organizations Concern Worldwide and GOAL.
Quickly on the ground in Gujarat was Concern’s Dublin-based director, David Begg, who spent some time in the hard-hit city of Bhuj, which until the earthquake was home to 150,000 people.
E-mailing about his experiences in Gujarat, Begg told of unimaginable devastation, a horror compounded by an eerie silence and the smells of death and destruction.
"It’s as if they experienced 15 Omagh bombings on the one day," he reported.
"The only living creatures in the former town center are long-haired pigs and the ubiquitous dogs. Their owners are either dead or long gone," he wrote.
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For Begg, the most poignant aspect of his mission was seeing how suddenly the everyday lives of hundreds of thousands of Indian citizens had been cut short.
"Washing still hangs from clotheslines, billboards still advertise the latest in consumer goods, bicycles are casually propped against walls," he said.
Before 5:45 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 26, Bhuj was a prosperous town with a population in excess of 150,000. It was also a town with a distinctive character and charm. In appearance, Begg wrote, "it must have borne a close resemblance to Wexford town, with its bustling shopping areas and network of narrow streets."
Now, Begg reports that 90 percent of Bhuj has been destroyed or seriously damaged. The rescue mission has all but wound down, although Begg still saw a team of 25 soldiers carefully probing ruins with picks and shovels, their faces masked against the every-present deadly infections from decomposing bodies.
Miracles still happen — a little girl was pulled from the rubble six days after the earthquake struck, still alive, relatively unscathed.
GOAL’s team in Gujarat was hampered in its rescue efforts by violent aftershocks. Emergency coordinator Dr. Pappu said "several times [our team] have had to drop the phone and evacuate the building due to aftershocks." He added that tens of thousands of missing people would almost certainly be declared dead.
Survivors are in desperate need of basic supplies, Begg reported. Shelter, blankets, cups, and bowls are in short supply, and at night the temperature drops to freezing. Immediately after the earthquake, doctors and orthopedic surgeons came to Bhuj, but they treated only the most seriously injured before moving on. "Continued medical observation and care is vital," Begg said.
With its size, Bhuj received more immediate help than the surrounding towns and villages. There are nearly one thousand small towns in the region, and many have yet to receive any aid at all.
Six thousand people lived in Venda, Begg reported, now 1,000 are injured and at least 500 are dead, buried beneath the rubble of a town that has "virtually ceased to exist."
Often the task seems hopeless, but Begg was adamant that relief work would intensify. Forty very poor villages in the area around Bhuj will be targeted by Concern — that is about 15,000 families or approximately 75,000 people whose lives have been turned upside down. "They are very traumatized. They really don’t know how to get to grips with this. Many of the rescue workers have lost loved ones as well. We will do more if we get the resources," he concluded.
Concern was founded in Ireland in 1968, and has brought emergency relief to disaster areas in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America ever since. It currently has 3,500 staff working on long-term development programs worldwide, as well as more immediate and desperate situations like the state of Gujarat in India.
Donations can be made to Concern, at the following address: Concern Worldwide USA, 104 East 40th Street, Room 903, New York, NY 10016. ( 557-8000). To donate to GOAL, contact Raina Stuart, GOAL, 1330 Avenue of the Americas, 33rd floor, New York, NY 10019. ( 698-9860).