When we withdrew The Salvation Army’s international relief team from Pakistan late last December – with winter drawing in, the area was in danger of becoming inaccessible – we prayed hard for the people we were leaving behind. The Pakistani military major who had been helping us deliver our tents and building materials more than 5,000 feet up into mountains assured us that the villagers we had been assisting had enough shelter to make it through the harsh winter but we all had mixed feelings about leaving.
In this ministry of international disaster relief work it’s quite common to second-guess yourself about how much more you should or could have done for the people you have been serving. But as ‘our’ villages became impossible to reach we knew in our minds, if not our hearts, that we could do no more until the weather allowed us access up the mountain again.
It was late January when we returned to begin making preparations for a team to return to Pakistan and begin the next phase of recovery work. It felt good to be back but we were a bit concerned about what we might find in Balakot, where much of the earthquake’s destruction was centred.
The winter had been harsh but, mercifully, not as bad as it could have been. As we approached the worst-affected areas, we passed the tents of hundreds and hundreds of families who had left their villages to see out the winter in many relief camps. Vast mounds of rubble and pulverised concrete, the remains of what once was a proud town, were still in evidence. Not much seemed to have changed in the month we had been away. Things were still very much an emergency in Balakot.
But as the day began to grow brighter, people started emerging from their tents. At first, things seemed fairly ‘normal’, but something just didn’t quite seem to fit. Men were gathering to continue their work of sifting through the rubble, women were beginning to clean around their tents and some were doing the family laundry while children had begun playing.
Everything seemed the same as when I was here before, but something just didn’t add up. Then it struck me – the children were playing! The more I watched, the more remarkable it seemed. In the midst of such terrible destruction, in the very place where their homes and many of their family members and friends were lost, the children were playing again.
As parents went on with their never-ending work to salvage what was left of their homes and their livelihoods, the children had gone back to their ‘jobs’ of just being children. It was marvellous! Little boys chased little girls, everyone smiling and laughing. Balls were thrown and chased. One little guy had climbed a tree – though his mother didn’t seem too pleased with him!
Captain Mike McKee, with a local guide, on the treacherous mountain road to Balakot
Children play between tents and a winterised shelter
Emergency worker Damaris Frick talks to local girls
Even in this place, surrounded by the obvious evidence of terrible destruction, the children had begun to bounce back. As the adults worked and worried, lamenting what had been lost and working to rebuild all that had been destroyed, the children seemed somehow to have moved forward, as children everywhere in the world tend to do.
I continue, though, to wonder about what it is that allows the little ones to play with their friends, go back to school (albeit in tents), and even to begin to smile again in the middle of such a heart-breaking scenario.
Could they be in denial, working overtime to pretend that none of this has ever happened, despite all the evidence to the contrary? Could their memories be so bad that they don’t remember how their lives were so very different just a few short months ago? Or could it be that their simple faith, the faith of a child that we read about in the Bible, reassures them that all will once again be made right? Are they able to play again because they just know that the adults – even those newcomers who dress differently and drive big vehicles – will take care of them?
As I write this, our new Pakistan Relief Team is getting ready for the day. We’ve spent our first night in our team quarters since returning to Pakistan and everyone’s anxious to begin working. Our task is to come alongside a community and to help them recover. We’ll work with the families to help them rebuild their community the way they would like it to be. We’ll strive to get the schools going again and replace much of what has been lost. But most of all, we’ll endeavour to give the little ones something to continue to smile about, in spite of the difficult situation they and their families currently find themselves in.
A tent village, home to some of the villagers who needed somewhere to see out the winter
Last December, as we were driving away from Balakot on our way home to wait out the winter weather, I saw something I will never forget. On a little mound of rubble, standing to full attention, was a small boy. He was saluting the cars and trucks that passed by. When we reached him, I rolled down my window and returned his salute. I was rewarded with a most wonderful smile. When he turned and ran to be with the rest of his friends, it occurred to me that we had entered into a type of informal agreement. For his part, he’ll go on being a child, trusting that the adults from his village, those strange people from far away, and a loving God he may not have even heard about, will get things sorted for him and his family. For our part, we’ve committed to doing our very best, as representatives of a loving and compassionate God, to justify his faith in us all.
Captain Mike McKee is Emergency Field Operations Officer at International Headquarters