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28 October 2014

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You are in: Bradford and West Yorkshire > Features > West Yorkshire Blogs > Cocooned in Kashmir...

Martin and friends in Noon Bagla

Martin and friends in Noon Bagla

Cocooned in Kashmir...

Lecturer Martin Sedgley, who provides support for international students at Bradford University, describes his experience of travelling to Pakistan in July 2006 to research a book describing the Kashmiri people's experience of the 2005 earthquake.

 It's said that the world is what we make it.  Before this summer, my contained world of teaching and writing was a rather small one.  When I was asked to research material for the book, 'Earthquake' by Nadeem Shah, about the human story of the October 2005 natural disaster in Kashmir Pakistan, life suddenly loomed frighteningly large.   Too many fragments from explosive media stories about Northern Pakistan had lodged in my consciousness - kidnappings, murder and terrorism.  Here too was the land of so many emigrants to the UK, apparently in search of a far better life.  A world too alien to my mundane, very English existence.  Many friends and family thought so too.  The collective media had worked their selective magic and Pakistan had become for many of us an impossible world of menacing fundamentalism.

rebuilding at Noon Bagla

Rebuilding for future generations!

But another part of me experienced the instinctive, thrilling pull of the exotic.  A whole new sub-continent had drifted into my imagination and the dazzling lure had been cast.  The book's publishing deadline was timed to coincide with the October 8 anniversary of the earthquake.  It was already late June, and I had to go immediately – straight into the mad season of 40 degree plus temperatures and who knew what else.   With so little time to prepare, I set off in a mood of strange detachment - a sudden lucidity of breaking away from the known, which began opening up my senses even before I landed in Islamabad. 

I plunged into a world of hectic slowness, magnetic primary colours, red dust, surprising greenery, faith, courtesy, unfailing kindness and safety.  Even as our groaning Landcruiser churned around yet another vertiginous, blind bend on the wrong side, I discovered a wonderfully reassuring trust that I hadn't been sure I possessed.    Hurtling rivers, grey and foaming, sank away into distant ribbons, as we continued upwards.   A calm sense of destiny blossomed inside me the further I travelled into this lush paradise ripped open by the raw wounds of raging landslides.  Our journey through tragic time finally brought me to Noon Bagla, a small, very remote village perched on a steep, verdant hillside of the lesser Himalaya. 

Among scented pines, I stepped from the car into another world, a brave old world, where I was welcomed as if a messenger from the outer darkness.  What it is to visit a place, not having seen another white face for days, to be welcomed not just as a brother, but as a  revered guest.  Ever since that moment, I have wanted the world to know that feeling.  A humility I believe will never leave me because
of the unfettered warmth I experienced among those innocent people. 

"She was so kind and loving. I miss her very much and I feel the gap caused by her departure could never be filled. May Allah bless her soul."

Qadeem ul Hassan

Thank God they haven't yet learned to discard their honest, direct, heartfelt way of communicating that welcomes strangers as honoured above all else.  That night, I was ushered to a precious one-room guest shelter.  The perfect light breeze wafted a lilting cadence of Urdu through ill-fitting shutters and bizarrely touching Spiderman curtains.   I stretched out to sleep but my mind was sparkling with the treasure of feeling truly safe, in a way I've rarely experienced in Britain.  This was the sense of safety that we all crave, the one that can't be manufactured, which allows an inner, involuntary softening because all really is well.  In impoverished earthquake-zone vulnerability I luxuriated in the peace that has become so elusive in the comfortably unconscious world of western 'security'.

Throughout that serenely unfolding day in the village of tents and ruins, every conversation had been laden with God.  I hesitate to even write the word because of the off-putting connotations for so many readers in the West.   But the tangible manifestation of Islam that I met in Pakistan, and in that village in particular, was nothing to do with a God of wrath or fear.  This was a day-to-day omnipresence of kindness, respect, friendship, acceptance and gratitude.  Without exception, I'd met nothing but open-eyed greetings of pure, unsullied affection.  How many foreign visitors will find that in every new UK acquaintance ?  

In Noon Bagla, I'd been led to a real community.  A spiritual collective, whose priority is to support itself – and everyone within it, where village meetings are held outside the ruined house of Syed Hussain, who can't visit others because his back was broken in the earthquake.  This archetypal gentle giant of a man, who typifies the resolute bond of community spirit and individual faith, radiated bright-eyed optimism, as he spoke of the ultimate wisdom of God, and his own determination to recover.

Waheed Gilani and family in their makeshift home

A makeshift home for Waheed Gilani and family

"There is nothing to be sad about.  What has happened, has happened.  It was the Will of Almighty God.  I am now back in the village where I belong, among my family and friends who are so supportive to me.  The doctors have disappointed me in one way because they warn me that the spinal cord may be damaged but I refuse to believe this – I am hopeful.  I feel confident that I will regain the strength and movement in my legs and one day, God willing, be able to walk again on my own, even without these crutches."

They know the value of life in Noon Bagla – precisely because so many lives have been lost with such callous indiscrimination.  On October 8 the earthquake snatched 39 villagers' lives, mainly women and children, but helpless young lives are still regularly being taken by such modern banalities as diarrhoea and dehydration.  You have to live consciously in this primitive world.   Moments matter, and a smile is always around the corner of raw, shared grief.  My face ached from smiling so often while I was there.  But how my heart ached too.  During every minute of my stay, I knew a fathomless sea of emotion swelling massive in my chest.  I was engulfed by their tragedy.  Yet I was also held by their amazing faith.   That enabled me to really hear their stories.  Here are some of them:

"The twenty three day old baby, Ahsan, (name meaning 'good deeds') had been sleeping inside along with his three sisters, Naila, 12, Benish, 8 and Samman, 5.  When the earthquake struck, the house was demolished instantly, crushing them.  I had to bring out the bodies of the daughters, one-by-one and lay them on the ground before their mother, Shabnum.

Altogether, from these houses we'd brought out seven bodies, including that of my father.  It's difficult to conceive now, but in all this anguish it's possible that everyone, including the mother, forgot about the little baby boy...I don't know, but maybe we didn't remember the little boy. 

Six hours after the earthquake had hit, lying exhausted, I heard some crying.  I felt a current of strength rush through me.  Scrabbling desperately at the debris, I peered into a gap and saw Ahsan for the first time, still lying on his rope bed.  I was able to reach through and touch him but immediately felt a beam of wood lying across the baby's chest and throat, trapping him.  With my small knife, I slowly cut through the ropes so that Ahsan rolled down and into my outstretched arms.  I inched backwards, dragging the cradled baby until we re-emerged into the sunlight. That was maybe the first really good deed I've done in my life."  Safeer Gilani.

"We married less than a year before the earthquake - a short relationship, but it seems I shall never be able to forget her.  She left me so soon.  Perhaps I did not deserve her.  She was so kind and loving.  I miss her very much and I feel that the gap caused by her departure could never be filled.  May Allah bless her soul." Qadeem ul Hassan

Shabnum and miracle baby Ahsan

Shabnum and miracle baby Ahsan

"He disappeared so suddenly that I do not want to believe him dead. He is not dead, he is hiding.  I feel him in the garden…in deserted vegetable bed…in these gloomy roses he used to prune and water.  I see him here in that dirt where he was hiding and was pulled out, sleeping.  I smell him and his scent is here in these horse-chestnut trees.  I see him in the shade of these trees, removing dead leaves from lilies." Surayya Gilani

"Our lives are always in the hand of God Almighty.  We do not control that.  However, I have seen how we all have the choice to help each other in our times of need.  So if, God Forbid, this were to happen again here I can see that the whole world will experience this with us and will once again turn to help us." Syed Hussain

When I visited Pakistan this summer I didn't meet the threatening face of modern terrorism so often portrayed in the West, instead I found a timeless innocence.  What a personal, life-changing gift I have received from the unfathomable complexity of the tragic earthquake in Kashmir.  And what an opportunity this presents us all with to extend the hand of true friendship across the divides of culture, religion and geography.

Many more stories from Noon Bagla are shared in the book, 'Earthquake', by Nadeem Shah, published this week by The AHS Foundation to commemorate the first anniversary of the disaster on 8 October 2005.  The Kashmir earthquake at 8.52 am killed over 100,000, including 17,000 school children who'd just started morning classes.  It has left 4 million people homeless, many of whom are facing their second sub-zero winter without permanent shelter.

last updated: 22/04/2008 at 14:36
created: 13/10/2006

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