For Mothers in Mourning, IRC Provides Counseling amid the Rubble
Within hours of the devastating earthquake in Pakistan, the International Rescue Committee rushed emergency teams from its Peshawar office to aid survivors. A special team consisting of three female counselors was dispatched to focus on women's issues, which were highlighted by the disaster in the conservative area of the country.
IRC team-member Laila Khan, who normally works as the manager of the Women Empowerment Project in the organization's Peshawar program, headed toward the town of Balakot with her two female colleagues, two doctors and two paramedics. They were shocked by what they found.
When we first arrived, we didn't expect the situation to be as bad as it is, said Khan. As we got closer to the town, everything was leveled. Only the roofs were lying on the ground. And it was complete chaos.
With the help of a local friend who survived, the IRC team was able to set up two tents one for males and the other for females for counseling amid the rubble of a destroyed office building.
It was a grim scene. Bodies of victims remained where they fell on the road side as people searched the rubble for survivors.
Conspicuously missing in the chaos were women. Only men could be seen wandering amid the destruction and receiving treatment. So while other members of the IRC team worked to set up camp, Khan and her two female colleagues immediately set out in search of affected women. They didn't have to look far.
Just a couple of yards away from our tents was this cluster of women from eight to ten families, said Khan. Some of them had injuries but had not come out to seek help. They were mourning and waiting for their children and trying to stick together.
The team found more clusters of women and told them about the IRC's camp and its offerings of aid and support.
Eventually, said Khan, so many women with so many injuries started showing up. The doctors would have a look at them and, because of the cultural sensitivies, it was important for us to be there while they were being treated. Throughout Pakistan's traditional communities, it is inappropriate for a male non-relative to physically touch a female for any reason.
As the wounded continued to be tended to, doctors began to refer others for counseling. Khan and her team found that the survivors simply wanted to talk. They wanted to talk about their loved ones and about hearing the children scream from underneath the rubble.
In addition to women, Khan's counselors talked to child survivors who also suffered from severe shock. Every child that came in we would give them candy afterwards. Normally, in the (Afghan) refugee camps the children couldn't wait to open it, but here they would just fidget around with it.
More than eighty-percent of Balakot was leveled by the quake that has claimed nearly 40,000 lives and left more than 3 million homeless throughout northern Pakistan and Kashmir.
Because of the extent of the destruction in the town, Khan says the situation will remain difficult for a long time. There's not a single family in Balakot that's whole, she says.