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  • Earthquake in India

    Dispatches from the earthquake zone: David Bull, Executive Director of UNICEF UK reports from Gujarat.

    Friday 2nd February, Bachhau Gujarat, India.

    For a small child, the home should be the source of security, the walls of your house providing a comforting sense of protection from the outside world and the harm that it can bring. But in the morning of 26th January 2001, for little Gita, just one year old, playing in her house in Bachhau, those very walls became the source of her suffering. First they shook and then they fell, crushing her leg from the knee to the ankle. Her 4 sisters playing outside, and her parents just a few feet away, were unharmed.

    The massive earthquake which struck Gujarat that morning has crushed families and communities in an apparently random manner, levelling some villages, while leaving others virtually untouched. In Ahmedabad, the wealthy owners of million rupee apartments in Mansi Complex were hit with equally arbitrary effect. 40 died in one block while neighbours escaped, alive but having lost all their possessions. Now they scrabble in the rubble searching for the lost documents they need to pick up their lives.

    At the heart of the quake in the city of Bhuj, eleven year old Poonam was sleeping when the walls came crashing down killing her father, leaving her sister trapped under the rocks for two anguished days and leaving her with a crushed leg, for which she is now receiving treatment in the Civil Hospital in Ahmedabad, alongside Gita. The doctors are confident that both girls' legs can be saved, but they will probably be in the hospital for three months. They are just two of the fifty worst-affected children who have been brought to the Civil Hospital for emergency treatment. As Poonam's mother told her story in a matter-of-fact tone, the shock was evident.

    This earthquake has damaged more than limbs and walls - it has left millions in shock and fear. The long-term impact is not yet clear. In the hospital a man from Bachhau estimated that as many as 35,000 of the 50,000 population may be dead. While the numbers remain uncertain, what is becoming clear is the way in which communities have worked to help each other, volunteering to search through fallen buildings, looking after children who have lost their parents, mobilising aid efforts through local NGO's The Government too has been co-ordinating and facilitating the massive aid effort. Aid is now reaching out to the more remote communities, but the region is a logistical nightmare with roads and bridges damaged, lack of water, electricity, telecommunications and accommodation.

    UNICEF 's office in Gujarat has been working for the last year to alleviate the impact of drought in the state and was well placed to respond quickly, bringing in supplies from other parts of India to meet immediate needs for medicines and clean water, and putting together kits of household essentials for family survival.

    Working with NGO's and Government, UNICEF will continue to respond in the coming months, especially helping to restore normality for affected children through temporary schools, education kits and trauma counselling. It is estimated that 14,000 schools have been damaged, 45% of those in Gujarat. In addition, there is the ever-present threat of disease outbreaks and the need for shelter for an estimated 100,000 homeless families.

    The task ahead is of mammoth proportions. The recently completed UN assessment of the needs of the 9 million affected population is only now beginning to reveal the full scope and magnitude of this extraordinary disaster. Already we have been able to supply the essentials for survival for many thousands of families. The anaesthetics, analgesics and antibiotics supplied by UNICEF have helped to ease the pain of children like Gita and Poonam. But we are committed to a short-term programme costing more than $12m - and that is only the start.

    It will take many years for this devastated region to return to anything like normality, but even then the scars will live on in the minds of children for whom the comforting walls of home have become a source of fear. We must find the resources to build on the start that has been made and help rebuild the lives of these brave people and give them the help they need to supplement the tremendous help they are already providing to each other.

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