Rehabilitation: Searching for normality

by Afshan Khoja

Lal Bano looks ahead blankly. She is surrounded by people in a similar condition — survivors of the landslide in Hunza valley in Gilgit-Baltistan a couple of months ago, which killed 19 and buried the entire village of Attabad. Lal Bano lost six members of her family in a second. When asked how she is doing, Lal Bano merely stares into space.

Another woman, Naseem, narrates what she went through on that tragic day, “I was up on my roof when I suddenly heard loud noises. Everyone started yelling and running around, telling others to run for safety. I was frightened and started running too. It came like a whirlwind and destroyed everything.” Naseem barely escaped with only the clothes she was wearing. Pointing to Lal Bano, Naseem explains that she is traumatised.

The landslide directly hit three villages — Attabad Payeen, Attabad Bala and Sarat — and formed a barrier on the Hunza River, causing water to collect in the form of a temporary lake that now spans 11kms. The affected area is located on the left bank of Hunza River, towards Khunjrab Pass, at a distance of around 18kms from Aliabad, the administrative centre of Hunza. The rising water has already caused the village of Ayeenabad to submerge, while posing great risk to Shishkat and Gulmit — two of the largest settlements of Gojal valley, home to approximately 7,000 people.

Parts of a major bridge on Hunza River on Karakoram Highway have also been submerged by this lake. The largest bridge on the highway, had developed cracks and was closed, cutting off Gojal valley from the rest of the country. Experts fear that if the bridge collapses, the land link between Pakistan and China would be snapped because an under-construction alternative bridge would take two years to complete. The closure of the bridge has left about 3,000 people stranded in Shishkat village which has been turned into an island in the lake. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) is working on the highway, and a boat service is transporting people living in Gojal, with helicopters on standby in case of an emergency.

Should the lake burst its banks downstream villages in Hunza, Nagar, Gilgit and beyond are at risk of being flooded, affecting thousands of people due to the collapse of bridges, flood-triggered landslides, land erosion, damage to link roads, electricity pylons and telephone poles. It is anticipated that some houses located along the riverbanks in Shishkat, Gulmit, Hussaini and Passu may also be affected if the water level continues to rise at the current pace.

People in high-risk downstream villages under immediate threat have been asked to vacate the area and move in with host families in safe zones. For populations further downstream, who would have nearly half an hour to escape the flood, an early warning siren system to alert all nearby villages to evacuate immediately has been arranged. Evacuation drill has also been conducted along with identifying exit routes for villages located downstream.

FOCUS conducts regular geological surveys and hazard assessments of vulnerable areas across the country, especially in the mountainous areas of northern Pakistan. The 2006 survey and hazard assessment reports were shared with the Gilgit-Baltistan government, and families were evacuated from the village and relocated to safer areas well before the disaster. In March 2009, 27 households were evacuated from the area, after geological surveys and hazard assessment reports deemed the area at high risk.

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