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April 27, 2007

Pakistan: Only Women Can Rescue Women

River Deep Mountain High

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Last year's quake, which measured 7.6 on the Richter scale, was the largest natural disaster ever to befall Pakistan. Communications in the region were initially wiped out, and in the chaos of the first day, it wasn't immediately known how many villages in the mountainous region were affected. Instead, Alam and Fatima's team flocked to Islamabad, where a luxury high-rise apartment tower had collapsed. The rest of the capital's eight embassies, expensive homes, and streets were largely untouched. "I'd never been inside a high-rise," confesses Alam. "Adults and children were buried under great slabs of rubble of what had once been a 10-story building. People were amazed to see female rescuer. They kept grabbing at us, sobbing, 'Rescue my mother first.' It was hard to ask them to be patient."

The shock of seeing the high-rise reduced to dust and debris is still fresh to Fatima. "No matter how much you train, until you see what happens in an earthquake this size, you have no idea of its power," she admits. "I was really scared until I started helping. Then, that's all you think of. All day long, we were removing the injured and dead."

As the enormity of the disaster became clear, the United Nations ordered the search-and-rescue teams north to the hardest-hit areas. Flying low in a helicopter over Muzaffarabad, a formerly vibrant city of 100,000 people, they could see giant slabs of debris lying in heaping piles, the remains of office buildings. "It was like the Day of Judgment," says Fatima. "All the buildings, every house — destroyed. I don't have words to describe it. I could only think, This disaster is too big. How can we handle it? But once we landed, I knew that no matter what capacity we had, we could save lives. God gave me the courage to handle whatever we faced."

Courage, yes — and stamina: All female rescuers undergo an intensive, three-month initial training program, followed by grueling monthly sessions to ensure they're able to maintain mental clarity under the most stressful conditions. Though a small group, the 18 women of Focus Humanitarian Assistance in Pakistan and Tajikistan have participated in multiple rescues.

Zafar Jang, a former army officer who helps train the community in disaster risk management, says the program looks for women who are athletic and can cope with high altitudes. "It's a risky, difficult job — bringing an injured person down from the top of a mountain," he says. "We prefer women who are older than 24 — so they are mature enough to make wise decisions in a crisis — but younger than 40, when they may have five or six children and no time to train or volunteer." And it goes without saying, having a liberal-minded husband is key: "Can she get her family's permission to do this work? Some communities won't let women leave their villages."

Of course, this line of work is not without challenges for a Muslim woman: Helping another woman is one thing, but Alam admits that the idea of administering CPR to a male victim is unnerving. "It would be hard for me," she says shyly. "But if there were no one else available, I would do it. It would be easier if the victim were a boy, though. My culture doesn't want me to touch a strange adult man."

Fatima, a former elementary-school math teacher, is more pragmatic. "Initially, we found it difficult to work with men," she confesses. "But we received encouragement, and it became less of a problem with time. Besides, the Koran says that when you save one life, it's the same as saving the world."

And the rewards for such heroic acts are personal, too: "There was such a sense of freedom at the beginning, when I rappelled off a mountain on ropes," says Alam. "It felt like flying. For the first time, I felt independent. Then I saw my mother-in-law was clapping for me. She told everyone, 'My son's wife is very different from other women. She is very brave.' I felt so proud to be able to do this work, to know I can save lives."

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