On October 8, 2005, I was a sophomore at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts when an earthquake in Kashmir changed everything. There’s no word for waking up to 17 messages from family members and friends alike, telling you the world is different now. Within less than a minute, it was almost 90,000 people short of what you remembered.
There’s a strange version of survivor’s guilt that follows a natural disaster. Being away from your people, being away from the tragedy of loss that you feel but cannot share in. You are helpless in the face of tears and a list of names that you will forever remember as the lost ones. You hear tremors in voices that you grew up thinking strong. And you missed everything that turned it into fear.
It’s an irrational urge, blaming yourself for something no one could’ve controlled. As though your presence could’ve changed the very course of nature.
When another earthquake struck on the border with Afghanistan on October 26, 2015 – almost 10 years to the day everything changed – things were only mildly different. For one, I was already awake, and I was still away here in Toronto.
My first instinct was to dig out every phone number I’d gathered over the years, and prepare to make calls for a story. Systemize, organize, compartmentalize. Collect data on seismic activity in the region. Talk to aid workers and people in neighbourhoods near the epicentre, much like you did years ago when you were trying to help. Hear about homes being leveled, watch cellphone videos of landslides wiping out entire towns, silently count the procession of casualties being taken into hospitals.
Checking on loved ones is different now, too. There are no sob-filled calls home to make sure everything’s okay. No tentative asking around to see if your friends are grieving. No lifetime of memories buried under debris and statistics. Facebook asks everyone I know if they’re safe, and lets me know in a single notification. Family and friends live-tweet the cracks in their walls and their sense of safety alike. (In this case, my family was safe.)
What doesn’t change is the way lives are affected outside this bubble of privilege. War-weary towns already suffering from the vicissitudes of conflict must now contend with the cruelty of nature.
Winter is on its way, and those who survived their worlds caving in must live without whatever shelter or food they had left. Children are ripped from their parents, left completely vulnerable to whatever evil wants to harm them. Villages are cut off from access, hours from real roads, with aid workers frantically losing any chance of finding survivors as the clock ticks on their efforts.
It’s easy to ignore the Afghanistan-Pakistan region as a self-contained bastion of extremist conflict. As long as whatever evil lurks there doesn’t come here, we’re all safe. Don’t worry about it.
But living amidst all that evil are people who don’t know the comfort of a quiet night. Who look to the sky in fear of unmanned drones. Who deal with trauma as a way of life.
And none of that makes a tragedy like this bearable. They’re thick-skinned, but they’re human, and human needs are the same in every time zone. Human needs don’t shift like tectonic plates and seasons so cruelly do.
The region is in dire need of attention, and not the kind that makes for scary headlines in the paper. Blankets, shelter, food and sanitation are just some of the needs that must be provided, and there aren’t enough resources to go around.
GlobalGiving, Red Crescent, Medecins Sans Frontiers and Edhi Foundation are all on the ground in the affected areas, and are collecting donations for relief efforts. Please contact your local agency, and give generously. There are lives that depend on your empathy and kindness, things that can never be shaken.