Mosques First, Schools Later

years after a devastating earthquake flattened a vast area straddling the LoC, Sameer Yasir spent a day in Uri to understand that the area is still far from being at peace with itself.

Children walk past damaged houses Kashmir after massive earthquake hit the area – Photo: Bilal Bahadur

Fayaz Khan was sipping tea in his newly constructed half done house that smelt of freshly plastered cement when the earth shook under him in October 2005. He jumped out forgetting there were many others inside. Within three minutes his house was a mound of rubble, it collapsed like a pack of cards.

Uri and Karnah being closer to the epicentre – located on the other side of the LoC, were flattened. Though the mountain range dividing Kashmir acted like shock-absorbers, still Kashmir lost 967 souls. Some of the families vanished almost completely in the calamity. These included many members of the Khan family.

“My wife was buried under the rubble. My only son was fast asleep and never got up,” Fayaz said. “It took us two days to recover their corpses.” Khan is still living the trauma. The only thing that withstood the earthquake was a small room near Khan’s concrete house made of stone and mud adjacent to the main house.

“I get scarred these days if I have to enter a cemented house,” Khan said, adding, “Mud houses make a better choice in areas prone to earthquakes.”

Khan’s liking for concrete is over. He even abhors owning a house. For all these years he lives in a two-room fibre hut provided by an NGO. A labourer, he lives alone. He did not marry despite the earthquake creating lot of destitution and widowing scores. The entire compensation that the government provided him is still in his bank account. In memory of the family he lost, he seems against raising a new family.

Billions have gone into the rebuilding and reconstruction process. But tell-tale marks are there. Even though hundreds of families have better places to live and new avenues of sustaining life, the earthquake has survived as a Frankenstein to haunt the people. “Even a small jerk makes me run out of my bed,” Abdul Rashid, a shopkeeper said. “It is the subconscious that reacts.”

Salamabad like other areas survived the devastation. Homes were rebuilt and roads were re-laid. After the village became the Trade Facilitation Centre for the trans-LoC road, a lot of investment was made into the village and instantly it became a tourist spot and a VVIP attraction. But still after six years around 30 students of the village take their classes under open sky in the shade of a huge walnut tree. Tariq Ahmad, the schoolteacher has secured a wooden chair for himself and a blackboard. But the building is nowhere.

“We approached everyone (in the government) for this school and they said they will be doing something but nothing happened,” the teacher said. “Since the focus of the government and the NGOs was central Uri, the peripheral belts like Slamabad remained off the attention.” He said there are no roads and these students suffered in making it to the school.

Locals alleged that the government’s rebuilding and reconstruction machinery discriminated against the less-politically-influential belts within Uri and that is why they are still struggling to get a shelter to house the school. “I cannot afford to send my son Waseem to army school in the main town so I have to be content with the open school in the village that is fair weather,” said Ghulam Rasoon Bhat, a labourer. “It is a holiday when it is rains.”

The delay in reconstruction of the schools is just not restricted to Uri. Even in Karnah, it is a huge problem. Kafeel-ur-Rehamn, who represents the area in the state assembly was recently told by the government that only eight out of 19 school buildings assigned to R&B department for reconstruction are complete. “The rest will take some time,” Education Minister Peerzada Sayeed responded in black and white.

But faith remained the top priority. In certain villages where people are still struggling to rebuild their houses, the mosque reconstruction got the top priority. Even some NGOs specifically targeted this sector almost on priority. One of them is Kashmir Welfare Trust that still runs an office in Uri.

“At the peak of crisis when everyone was focussing on homes, we decided to take care of the most pressing requirement, the mosques,” said Masood Ahmad KWT that constructed 140 mosques in the area.

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