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Jaanwar ! The beast beneath   Gujarat - by Ken Vrana

EDITOR'S NOTE: With the three month anniversary of the earthquake in the Indian state of Gujarat approaching, you won't find too many headlines about it. Relief kitchens in the quake-affected areas are being closed, and with no recovery plan yet in place for some of the worst-affected towns, the rubble of collapsed buildings is still strewn around. It is our hope that this photo-essay by Cary resident and documentary film maker, Ken Vrana, will help to recapture and focus attention back upon the devastation that is still a part of the Gujarati life. Click on pictures for larger images.


Story and Photos by Ken Vrana

At 8:45, on the morning of January 26, an earthquake registering 7.9 on the Richter scale struck the Indian state of Gujarat. Counting many in the local Indian community as friends, I was both shocked and dismayed, as early reports began to filter in regarding the extent of the death and devastation. Little did I image, that only a few weeks later, I'd be standing at ground zero myself.

My wife, Lisa, and I had volunteered to help organize the local relief effort and had pledged the services of our newly created service agency, 12/25, for that purpose. Then a few weeks later, in a meeting at the Indian temple in Morrisville, I decided I wanted to become even more involved, so I stood up and volunteered to go to the earthquake zone myself and do a documentary on the disaster. Joined by my friend and noted CNN corespondent, Dan Ronan, we soon found ourselves flying toward a place neither of us ever imaged we'd see, and now apprehensive regarding our initially enthusiastic interest in making the trip.

During the flight, described to us as difficult at best, we became even more apprehensive when rather than flying directly from Amsterdam to Mumbai, we were rerouted to Germany because of bad weather. When we finally returned to Amsterdam, our connecting flight had already gone and we were forced to fly to Singapore, before finally arriving in India, nearly a day later. By that time we'd been in the air or in terminals for nearly 72 hours without a break, and to make matters worse, when we finally set down in Mumbai, all our check-on luggage was missing.

We were left with no clothes, no medicine and little of our photographic equipment. We would not see it again for nearly 2 weeks. To both Dan and I, the situation seemed dire. We had been thoroughly coached by our Indian friends in the Triangle, as to what to bring and what not to bring. We'd listened and, if anything, felt over-prepared. Now all we had were the clothes on our backs and the equipment in our carry-ons. What's more, we still had an additional hour's connecting flight to our base of operations, in the city of Ahmedabad.

Upon our eventual arrival in that wonderful place, we were met with sights and sounds, one who has never been to the area can only imagine. What's more, we were especially struck by the severity of destruction to the city's infrastructure. Ahmedabad is a seven-hour drive from the earthquake's epicenter, and yet everywhere we looked, there were piles of rubble where only a handful of days earlier, tall buildings had stood. So too, many people had died in this proud place and our driver related terrible stories of death and injury.

 Faced with the enormity of what we were seeing, and struck with the size of the task we'd volunteered for, we eventually fell into fitful sleep, exhausted to the point of muteness. I cannot honestly say that from that day until our eventual return to the States, Dan and I ever awoke well rested, but I can say that had it not been for the e-mail support of our benefactors in Morrisville, most especially Mr. Arvind Shah and our host in Ahmedabad, Shubhang Shah, we most certainly would have failed in our mission. While Arvind Shah made sure that we received support at home, Shubhang, a successful Indian businessman and former N. C. State graduate, served as fixer, host and friend, throughout our ordeal. To them we remain eternally grateful.

Replacing what we could of those things gone missing from our luggage, we began our journey into the heart of the earthquake zone. The seven hour trip was long and dusty, over roads that were oftentimes barely passable. We were also immediately struck by the endless convoy of huge trucks going in the opposite direction, carrying tens of thousands fleeing the homes they'd left behind. As Dan and I glanced at each other, we wondered aloud what awaited us, and if we'd been foolish to volunteer for such an assignment. It would not be the last time we wondered. Not by a long shot.

Some hours from our final destination, we noticed what appeared to be a huge pile of rubble off to our right. That rubble turned out to be the village of Haj (pronounced - Wah.) It was as if some giant mallet had simply crushed it, with not more than a handful of buildings left standing and those, completely uninhabitable. As we wandered along what used to be streets, numbed by the enormity of the destruction, I was suddenly started by a large herd of cattle roaring directly toward me. I immediately lunged toward a berm to my left, narrowly missing being trampled. We would learn later that the cattle had stampeded because they had been without water for 4 days and had started to go mad.

Some minutes later, Dan and I noticed a slight, brown man, standing nearby, pouring water over his body. We watched in amazement as he made a great show of luxuriating in the process. We soon learned that he was a government official who'd been given the responsibility of handing out what water was available, to the villagers. Incongruous, we asked him how he could be taking a sponge bath, while villagers dying of thirst, looked on. Without hesitation, he replied, "It's my water."

Perhaps without thinking, we pressed the point, and soon the villagers, emboldened by our aggressiveness, put aside their fear of the government official's apparent authority and took up our inquiry. Soon a near riot broke out, but in the end the man began to surrender his water. Although Dan and I joked that we'd probably be arrested before out trip was over, it somehow seemed worth what we'd done.

We also learned that while most of the town's children had been spared, the morning of the quake, twenty-some young school girls were killed, when a precession they were participating in was crushed by a building that fell into the street.

From then on, we tried our best to absorb our experiences, each one more unsettling than the last and at one point we felt we had succeeded. That was until we met the mayor of Bhuj, whose job it had been to cremate over 1,000 of his neighbors and friends in one 8-hour period. As we were sitting in his home, interviewing him, a phone call came in saying that yet another victim had just been brought to the local crematorium. Soon, we were standing in what was little more than a waste ground, watching this latest victim of the devastation prepare to meet his God. While we spoke to the man's family, the mayor's eyes filled with tears as he related what the earthquake had done to he and the city he so loved. The scene seemed too much for Dan as well, as we looked at endless piles of ashes that lined a wall, nearly 400 feet long. He dissolved into unashamed tears..

So many people, so much death, so much misery. What I would eventually come to call "Janwar," the Indian word for 'The Beast,' had scarred this place forever.

Days later, we stood in a small building in the center of Bhuj, and listened to an Indian doctor in charge of the field hospital there, describe the morning of the quake. A highly educated, articulate man, so used to death and dying, struggled to describe what it had been like. He also voiced the fear Dan and I shared, that in their understandable rush to regain some sense of normalcy, area residents and shopkeepers were rebuilding structures as quickly as possible. "Only when we make the conscious decision to employ state of the art, earthquake building technology, will Bhuj stand a chance. If not, I fear it will eventually become a city of ghosts."

When Dan and I asked him why he did not take his family and leave, he looked directly into ours eyes and said, "Many have asked me that, many have urged that I do that. How can I do that when so many here need me?"

It was a logic we could not dispute, as just outside, another broken body died just yards from where we sat. No wonder those who know him call him a God. So do I.

As the days passed we had many such experiences. We saw children playing only yards from where others had been killed, a certain testimony to their spirit and desire to live. We spoke to two boys, orphaned by the quake, who with voices firm but laced with doubt, said they would manage somehow. Dan and I watched them disappear behind the huge pile of rubble that had once been their apartment building, felled like a huge tree and could barely contain ourselves. And then there was the horrible destruction of so many temples and other holy places. Some, 4,000 years old. How ever could this place be rebuilt? How ever could these people go on?

Soon however, we had our answer. Nearing the end of our trip, we asked a man just that. Through reddened eyes and with tears slowly streaking his copper face, he said, "I can not leave. This is my home."

 


If you would like to help the people of earthquake ravaged Gujarat, please contact Lisa Vrana at 12/25, KVRANA@nc.rr.com or Mr. Arvind Shah at Shaharvind@aol.com. There is also an exhibit of artifacts, brought back by Ken Vrana from the earthquake zone, being planned at Raleigh's Exploris Museum. For further information, please contact the museum.
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