Out of the Rubble, Rebuilding Homes and Lives
As a young man, Sabdul Saheed built a modest house for himself on a patch of hillside in the village of Blandkot where his grandfather’s home once stood. One by one, he laid the stones—it took him six months.
He speaks proudly now of how warm the four-room house was and how the sturdy mud roof held up for 50 years.
Sabdul says he was on the other side of the hill the morning of October 8 when he felt the earth shudder. He hurried back to find the house he had called home for much of his 90 years reduced to rubble.
“I can’t remember anything,” Sabdul says of that day. “I was puzzled. In my life, I have never seen an earthquake like that.”
Only the six-foot square kitchen was left standing. It is there, where a small fire burns during the day, that Sabdul lies on a dirt floor to sleep each night.
But rising alongside the remains of Sabdul’s house is a new home, one made of wooden beams with a stone foundation that will be enveloped in plastic sheeting and topped with a tin roof. It will be temporary, meant to last a year or so, but it will be a major step toward helping Sabdul start over.
In the Danna area, which sits a mile above sea level on a mountain near the quake’s epicenter, more than half the houses were completely destroyed and over 17,000 people were left homeless.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the International Rescue Committee worked with community groups to identify those who needed help first, providing Sabdul and his neighbors with tents, warm bedding, and tools and materials to erect temporary shelters. Now it is helping them rebuild their homes and lives.
Since mid-November, an IRC program has been recycling the ruins of quake-damaged houses into useable building material. As part of the program, 20 local workers, each from a different household, remove rubble and salvage beams. They receive 200 rupees (a little more than $3) for each home cleared, while learning skills that can help them generate future income. Sawmen are then paid to turn the salvaged lumber into 2x4s, 4x4s and planks to construct wood frames and roofs.
“The incentive that keeps them going is that it really builds a community spirit,” IRC shelter and distribution advisor John Mason says. “The bond that they build will last longer than the paychecks.”
Sabdul’s brother Muhammad has been thinking about how he wants to rebuild the home his family lost to the quake.
He and his wife and two sons have found temporary shelter from the persistent rain and snow in a tent topped with plastic sheeting provided by the IRC. Inside, the four cots, six chairs and piles of quilts remain dry, but water is starting to seep through the beam across the threshold of the tent and spread across the dirt floor.
Muhammad worries each time a heavy snowfall is expected, knowing that too much weight will collapse their fragile home. He frantically pushes his palms above his head, miming his solution for a sagging tent roof. “It’s too much of a problem to be in a tent for two or three months,” he says. “I cannot do it forever.”
Muhammad says he does not want a replica of his family’s former house, which — like many in the area — had heavy stone walls that could have proved deadly had his family and many of their neighbors in this farming community not been working in the fields the morning of the quake. For the time being, the temporary home going up across from their tent “is enough for us,” he says.
Reconstruction of the first 300 homes is due to start by April, when the snow recedes. The IRC is devising ways to make these new houses easy and inexpensive to build and to make them earthquake-safe—a constant concern each time an aftershock shakes northern Pakistan.
Mason is working on a plan that would allow the homeowners themselves to rebuild broken houses from the very soil they sit on, by manufacturing sturdy compressed-earth blocks.
The IRC also plans to reestablish Danna’s damaged health center and restore the water supply to help the community recover.
Sabdul Saheed is pessimistic about ever regaining his former life. He says it will take 30-40 years for the community to get back to where it was before the quake—time he does not have. But Muhammad sees hope in the spring.
“After winter,” he says, “maybe we can become normal.”