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26th January 2001

(The Black Day in Kutch) 

26th January 2001 began with a merciless atmosphere of  a great disaster and Kutch was at the top of the list.

At 8.30 am, when most of the children had left for school to attend the Republic Day celebrations and the elders were preparing to go to the function… the earth started trembling as if it had lost control. The harsh rumbling noise from below sounded as if the entire underground railway system was trying to force its way up to the surface… the house walls began to dance in a hazardous fashion, moodily casting chunks of masonry to the ground as they gave way and caved in, knocking cupboards and shelves down and throwing pots, pans and crockery down to the floor.

The concrete ceiling shuddered and held on for a few more seconds until it, too, came crashing down and then the staircase collapsed, splintering into hundreds of fragments. Windows rattled perilously, as if sounding a warning, before suddenly shattering and savagely piercing everything within reach with deadly spears and slivers of glass. Above the sounds of rumbling and falling masonry, cries and screams could be heard all around.

My aged mother had been resting when the horror began. I ran to her rescue and found her trying to extricate herself from a narrow gap between some steel cabinets which had collapsed. I managed to help her out and led her to safety. My wife was trapped in a storeroom where two walls had collapsed. She was very shaken and bruised but I dragged her out, and my daughter – a dear foster daughter – was in her dressing room checking her appearance before accompanying me to a 26th January function at one of the schools where I was to be Chief Guest.

She was trapped between two walls leaning against each other. I had to force her out rather brutally. There was no time to show any mercy; a few minutes delay and she would have been trapped and then buried as the walls finally collapsed into rubble.

Everybody was out in the street; all the neighbours with their children and elderly relatives. The whole community was filled with fear; several were trembling and trying to make out what was really going on. What Devil had come so suddenly and shocked everyone, destroying everything? A cry of terror suddenly was heard above the chaos:

‘My daughter is inside. Please help!  If someone could go in and bring her out?’

The once beautiful house was damaged beyond repair. It looked ugly now, partially collapsed and surrounded by debris. All of its occupants were outside except the young girl, but none of her family was able to go inside to help her out. Not that they were afraid, but the corridor leading to the girl’s room was totally blocked and they were unable to reach her.

I moved carefully around the house and with the help of two young people, we removed the window of the room where the girl was trapped. Three of us struggled for fifteen minutes and we brought out the injured girl, who was speechless with fright. But once she was consoled and back with her family, she seemed to be alright.

The General Hospital had collapsed, and private doctors fled their homes in an endeavour to save their own and their families’ lives. Clinics were out of reach as the town area had suffered a lot of damage.

There was shouting, crying and wailing everywhere. Part of the large Secondary DV High School came crashing down. Luckily, the students had assembled in the open area for the 26th January celebrations. A few children were buried beneath the toilet block, which had totally collapsed. Several students rushed to the place but there was nothing they could do. The children were buried under the stones and rubble and crying for help.

We were able to remove the stones, but they quickly became gravel and the broken slabs were on top of the children. We searched for tools to remove the gravel, but there was nothing around that we could use. I rushed to my place and luckily found two spades and after thirty minutes of hard work we were able to remove a dozen injured and frightened children. There were plenty of students to look after them.

I thought of rushing to my clinic with the emergency bag as I thought it would be very important at this juncture. There were six of us, all from my society. However, it was very difficult to get in to my medical store. There was no way of getting through to my clinic on the 1st floor; all the walls had come down and some were still hanging very dangerously.

Everything was ruined. My modern equipment was all destroyed and very expensive medicines all wasted and mixed up with oils from the broken bottles.

And that was the moment when I thought of the Devil Earthquake which had struck the entire town.  Not only the town, but the entire district – the whole of Kutch. Everything had gone within just a few minutes. Thousands of people were killed, and several thousands were injured. Several houses had shattered into smithereens and shops were demolished to ground level. Some buildings had their ground floors swallowed up under the ground. People were ejected from their homes without any notice as properties worth billions were demolished. There were people out in the streets with nothing left and others were wandering about in various stages of preparation for the celebrations.

Aged parents had lost their sons and very young children were orphaned. Sisters were suddenly without brothers, and helpless brothers saw their beloved sisters cruelly snatched by violent death.

I was told of my nephew who was trapped under a load of heavy beams at his workplace. We rushed round there and struggled to remove the broken structures around him. We were able to move nearly all the pieces but for one huge beam which was crushing my nephew’s leg. It was impossible for us to remove the beam. It needed lifting equipment or a fleet of super-strong men. Where would we get any one of them at this time? We decided to amputate my nephew’s leg, whatever happened. There was no time for thinking or waiting because of the risk of the whole structure falling onto my nephew’s body… and that meant certain death.

I could not locate my surgical saws and so I managed to obtain a wooden saw. I had no choice but to amputate part of his leg so as to free him before it was too late. There was no time to think of side effects or infection; he had to be removed from the site at the earliest opportunity to save him from the terrible end that awaited him.

But God was there to help us; a crowd of about twenty strong men with the appropriate tools came to our aid and soon the heavy beam was lifted and my nephew was pulled to safety. Someone with a kind heart then offered to drive him home.

And so we continued in our efforts to help those affected until late at night when I found myself unable to carry on as I had not taken anything since morning except water.

There was an extra emergency bag in my vehicle and some medicine in my store at home, which was safe. It could help several injured persons. I was short of stitches as all my stock was in my clinic. I had some to start with and I asked my wife to find me some good needles and a bundle of threads, nylon if possible.  As our house-store was not too badly damaged, she brought me the items I required such as antiseptic oil, bandages and a first aid kit, and I was also able to get hold of some antibiotic medicine.

No adults came forward to accompany me. Everyone was frightened and preoccupied with their own problems. A young neighbour pledged to come with me and I was happy to have him along with me. After all, I needed somebody to accompany me and help with the dressings. He said he could do it.

The entire town was shattered into pieces and everyone wanted help. The RSS volunteers were already in the field and many ‘not affected’ people were busily going round to help out the affected ones There were still people who were buried beneath the waste, and still we could hear the desperate cries of people who needed assistance.

The Government machinery was already out there; the rescue teams moved in with all sorts of vehicles and JCBs. The police force was also in the field.

The work of rescue teams was in full force in the town. As the people were busy removing their expensive items to a safer place, the volunteers were also busy, striving to save the buried persons. Those with the worst task were the RSS teams removing the dead bodies.

The arrival of a special team of expert women and trained dogs from Germany was much appreciated and they were very useful in finding survivors who were buried deep under the rubble. There were special compressors from Reliance who were forcefully breaking up the huge stones and structures that formed barriers over the buried persons. There were several JCBs removing the crushed waste and also clearing the way for the workers and volunteers.

Everything was ruined and people went around crying and mourning their losses of both property and relatives. Most of the residents of the town had lost at least one family member in the cruel disaster. Some people had lost their entire family.

The residential houses with roofs and walls down were now open to the elements; clothes, crockery, ornaments, safes and money – all were open to the likes of any Tom, Dick or Harry.

And while most of the people were busy helping to get the buried persons out, and others removed the dead bodies, there were evil people around who started stealing and looting the unsecured expensive items. It was difficult for the outsiders to know who were the rightful owners of the property and who were the thieves, when a fleet of people were seen removing their belongings in lorries, rickshaws or trucks where there was access, and others with handcarts and even two-wheelers.

They were trying to save as many possessions as possible, but the unlawful among them were robbing the households and loading the goods into parked vehicles. There were clothes, TV’s, CD’s, freezers, kitchen crockery and large amounts of cash and valuable ornaments.

The police force on duty was not able to control the looting as they found it difficult to differentiate between the rightful owners of the houses and the robbers. But some of the greedy policemen even took the opportunity to steal cash and ornaments along with the other thieves. Their conduct was really wicked and merciless.

Then the Army took over and the situation came under their control as they patrolled and worked hard to safeguard the property of the dead, injured and affected persons. Many people were helped to locate their belongings, some having to dig them out from the debris, and then took them to a safer place.

There was one policeman who had loaded his jacket and pants with ornaments and cash and was sought by the army officer who, when he caught him, injured both his  knees and recovered a golden ornament worth millions as well as a lot of cash.

There were heartless people loitering around under the pretence of helping the victims. They would go up to the injured persons and offer to help, and then snatch their wrist-watch, rings, earrings and necklaces and even cash from their pockets. There was a case of one woman whose ear was torn by one such thug who took her earrings. Another woman, whose gold bangles were taken, had her arm cut.

All these atrocities were observed by the Writer who was on the ground to assist the victims. They were shameful events and a blight on humanity at such a sensitive and critical time.

I did my best to give first aid treatment, antibiotics and pain killers to the victims. I had a stock of anti-tetanus tablets and injections and I used them as and where required.

Volunteers were kept busy bringing in supplies of clean water, and others were helping to look for relatives and escorting the more fortunate people back to their homes which had not been damaged.

Most of the doctors from the town had vanished. Their surgeries had been demolished. Consequently there was a shortage of medicine as well as doctors, but there were some doctors in town whose dispensaries had not been affected, and they stayed to give what help they could to the victims of this terrible disaster.

The famous surgeon of the town was in action, doing his utmost for the badly injured and he arranged for a temporary medical camp to be set up on the road just below his hospital. His hospital had been partly damaged and the only safe area was not adequate for the huge number of people needing treatment.

Medical and rescue camps were set up and organized by doctors from outside. With the exception of three or four doctors of the town, the others had fled for the safety of themselves and their families, avoiding and overlooking their duties at such a crucial time.

People were being recovered alive from beneath the rubble and taken for treatment. Volunteers were working non-stop to help wherever they could. Humanity, at least, was alive and well, apart from a minority of unfeeling and wayward people who were ready to turn tragedy to their own advantage.

Food, clothes and medicine began to pour in from outside. The RSS took the lead, distributing food and clean water and clothing to all who needed it, regardless of their faith or tribe. They also removed the dead bodies and carried out burials or cremations with dignity in spite of the horrific conditions.

It was heartening to see Hindus and Muslims being served equally by RSS, who had a reputation for being anti-Muslim. During such critical periods they show and prove beyond doubt that they are not against all the Muslims, but only those who live in India and take advantage of the better facilities in India and then side with the enemies of the country. In other words, the traitors only.

The political leaders were on the scene – Keshubhai Patel, the Chief Minister, the centeral Home Minister Mr Advani, Narendra Modi and many others.  I had seen Mr. Advani (in shorts and wearing the cap of RSS) helping in the camps as an ordinary volunteer. Narendra Modi, the present Chief Minister of Gujerat was moving around, and I saw him sitting on the stones, talking to people who were homeless, and sitting on the bare ground with families, eating simple food from a patravali – a dish made from tree-leaves. I had also seen Mr. Ambani directing his force of JCBs to the best possible use. Reliance was on the move to help people by all meand possible.

I had met mostly all the media people from television, newspapers and magazines. Their news reporters, journalists, and camera crews were all there in the thick of it, graphically describing the devastation and sending images of our suffering around the world. They tried their best to make outsiders aware of the disaster and made an  appeal to come forwaed for the possible help.

I was happy to see the honourable Defence Minister Shree Fernandez touring the disaster area with his team, his solemn face, and a will to help the victims. I believe he was the first central Cabinet Minister to reach the site and condole with the affected people of Kutch. He was the first senior Minister to give an accurate account of the worst situation in the history of Kutch to whole of India and the entire world.

And the peoples of the world, through their generous leaders, came to the rescue of Kutch, a place which was previously unknown to most overseas countries. Emergency meetings were held by such Governments and instant agreements were made to send aid. The target was Kutch, although a few referred to it as Gujerat. Kutch became the central point for HELP and the western world woke up and started OPERATION KUTCH within a couple of days.

Several trucks loaded with all sorts of items required for victims’ daily needs arrived in fleets. There was no shortage of any types of food, including fruit. There were clothes, tents, stoves and other kitchen equipment, and plenty of blankets, as the weather was chilly. Tons of medicines were offloaded, and no medical camp was left without a full stock of medication. Air services from America, Great Britain, Israel, France and Germany were quick off the mark and packed foods and medicines were soon available in plenty.

Volunteers and donors from all parts of India rushed to Kutch to help with cash and services. People who had never visited, or even heard of Kutch were flocking in – as Deities coming to the rescue of their affected brethrens. Most of the States of India sent representatives to the scene. Kutch became a very crowded place with volunteers and donors of different colours, races and religions.

I was assigned to the Belgian team which had rushed from Belgium with a full cargo of medicines and a team of twelve emergency volunteers. There were four qualified doctors and the others were assistants. They came with all their equipment for operations, x-rays, first aid, tents and food.  We took over an empty area in the huge vegetable market compound in town for our camp.

Everything was so well organized and the volunteers were very quick to establish their camp with all its different sections. Tents for their stay were also installed; they had even brought special mobile toilets. They were well equipped with cooking utensils and had enough tinned food to last them for a week.

The head of the volunteers was an Asian and a Gujerati, who had raised the funds from the special Gujerati Group in Belgium. His mission was to serve the needy with all his heart.

I joined the team as an interpreter and liaison officer and later on I was given my own list of cases needing urgent treatment. The team had all the modern tools and utensils to meet the requirements, and they even brought a state-of-the-art operating table with them as well as a huge stock of emergency medicines and special wound dressings. They had also managed to bring an ambulance with them with all rmergency facilities.

The situation was brought under control after a few days through the joint efforts of the volunteers from overseas and the local people. The outsiders from all over India and the foreigners really came in full force to rescue affected people Kutch. Surely they did a tremendous job. I salute them all through my mighty pen.

Anjar, the most affected town of Kutch, had lost thousands of her citizens, property worth billions, and her origins. Nothing recognizable was left.

Bhachau, a small town some 35 kilometres from Anjar, was also totally crushed with several people dead and many others injured. In Ratnal, a small village on the way to Bhuj, most of the houses were destroyed and several deaths recorded.

Bhuj itself, the capital city of Kutch with several multi-storey buildings, was severely shaken throughout, with most of the multi-storeys crashing to the ground, killing many people and injuring others.

Hundreds of camps were set up to accommodate the needy and human generosity prevailed. Kutchi Leva Patel Samaj came out in full force with thousands of Patel volunteers from their villages and helped the affected people with cash and goods. Patel Hospital was the first to offer its services to the Israeli team, who were the first outsiders in the medical field to come in full force to help Kutch. Their huge camp in the open area of the Patel Samaj was kept busy treating thousands of injured people.  The women OF Kutchi Leval Patel Samaj  came in full force to help affected people by seving them with fresh food, clothes and other household items.

Sukhpur, a thriving village near Bhuj, was very badly affected by death and injury. But the brave and generous Patel community of the area came to their rescue, saving several people and then quickly settling them into the specially erected camps.

Gundala, a small but well developed village near Mundra, saw great losses but the residents from Bombay took over the situation and the Jains were really generous in helping their affected brethren in every way they could.

Some villages like Vong and Dudhai were rebuilt as new, thanks to the generosity of donors.

Kutch lost more than thirty thousands lives and property worth billions. The Gujarat government was quick to help and very generous with its benefits of cash and goods to those in need. The assistance from the other States of India was in abundance, as was the foreign aid from other generous and compassionate countries… indeed, it was wonderful.




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