Mohammed Riaz's story as told to me
"I moved from London to Pakistan eight years ago because it is where I feel at home. When the earthquake ravaged the northern regions of the country, I wanted to help. I have never worked in a charity so had no idea of how to organise a relief group.
We live in a remote village nearly two hours drive from Islamabad. It’s certainly a change from Tottenham. When the quake struck we had just returned from shopping in Islamabad. I was in the bathroom. When I opened the door I felt the shaking. My wife called to me: “It’s an earthquake!”
Even though we live hundreds of miles from the epicentre, the ground shuddered beneath us. I sat my family of seven in front of the television and we watched expectantly. The death toll was increasing rapidly.
My youngest daughter, Zara, who is seven, prayed for those who were thought to have died. My three-year-old son, Eesa, ran around screaming: “The earthquake is coming!” and gestured to fight it off.
The media reported well but it took a couple of days to grasp the extent of the damage. No one expected as much wreckage, or could have predicted that the estimated number of fatalities would reach more than 80,000. The next day I continued to watch the news and prayed for the victims. The more I watched the more I wanted to join the relief effort. This was the country I’d chosen to be a part of, so I wanted to help in her time of need.
My nieces and nephews in the UK call money in Pakistan “Monopoly money”, because to them it seems worthless. But to people here that is not so. I thought it would be a challenge raising significant donations from such a tiny place. My wife used a local religious meeting place to attract support and raised the equivalent of £5,000. My brothers in Tottenham donated £6,000 of their money. My sister-in-law raised £4,000 with a fundraising auction. The generosity of people all over the world was extraordinary.
Six of us, all men, set off for the northern regions. Advised by the government on what to take, we packed trucks with warm blankets, non-perishable food and kafns (wraps to cover dead bodies). Unfortunately in these situations people’s generosity is sometimes exploited, so we made a film of our work, showing how the donations were used.
We made five trips to three of the regions that suffered the gravest destruction. We went to Balakot first, then Muzzafarabad and Bagh. The roads were uneven before the quake and it was nearly impossible to clamber up them in our jeeps - we walked a lot. Survivors were panic-stricken on our first trip. Some had lost whole families. Most had lost their homes. Their forefathers had lived there, they had a place in the community, and they weren’t going to leave. Kafns were the most welcome handout. There were hundreds of bodies and nothing to cover them.
On our third trip, we took tents. One very elderly man came to me and dropped at my feet. Crying, he said: “I only have one daughter left and nothing over our heads.” That was the most touching moment for me. Elders should never bow at a younger person’s feet. It revealed their anguish.
A goat herder I met saw the quake tear apart the terrain. He said it was like a scene from a US movie. He saw cars turned upside down, the river disappear, the ground suddenly raised by a foot and a half. He lost his vision for around two hours - no one asked whether out of shock or medical reasons.
On our fourth trip we saw a body speeding down the river and ran to pull it out. It was a lady; she was gangrenous and the fish had devoured her face. All we could do was cover her and pray.
As Muslims we believe in Qayamat (Judgment Day). The Koran says when Qayamat is imminent, “The mountains shall be made to crumble with (an awful) crumbling, so that they shall be scattered dust.” I heard people saying: “We thought this day would never come,” as if they believed Qayamat to be around the corner. Nothing is ever seen as an unlucky natural disaster. It is hard to consider this as an intentional warning from God with all the thousands of children that it took, but we believe they will enter the heavens.
It took about six weeks for Pakistan to realise how extensive the devastation was. There are still aftershocks. For those like the woman we captured from the current, there must be thousands more corpses left to rot without dignity and thousands of families left without, well, anything."
Mohammed Riaz, 44, is a property developer. His family moved from Pakistan to England when he was 12 and he returned to Pakistan eight years ago. He lives in the Punjab with his wife Sirween and six children.
Published in the weekend FT Magazine on 7th April, 2006