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by Zofeen Ebrahim

Who's Winning Friends, Making Enemies in Pakistan?

(IPS) ISLAMABAD -- A new photo exhibition in the Pakistani capital is giving child victims of the Oct. 8 South Asia earthquake a voice, and a safe place to tell their recorded stories.

"I fainted as the school collapsed. When I woke up I found myself outside the school. The roads were blocked. There were so many dead bodies and we had to walk over them. I was crying. Even now, tremors remind me of that terrible day. But I am not afraid because life is coming back to normal," said one child survivor.

Another child said: "I was washing dishes when the earthquake came. My mother asked us to run. It was a terrible feeling as people were shouting and screaming and there were dead bodies everywhere. But now the fear has gone and I'm getting confidence by sharing (my ordeal) with other people. It is good to be here in the camps. Life is getting normal."

Rating 7.6 on the Richter scale, the temblor killed 80,000 people and left another 2.5 million homeless.

According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), one in five persons in the affected areas is under the age of five. Many children suffered head injuries and multiple limb fractures that required amputations. UNICEF estimates that 20,000 children suffered physical impairment from serious injuries and amputations.

But memories of the past six months, in which the survivors braved bitterly cold weather and suffered the emotional and psychological trauma of losing their loved ones and their homes, may also remain forever etched in their consciousness.

A photography exhibition "Looking at Life from a Different Angle," that started showing this month pieces together the experiences (in words and images) of young persons who were forced to live in camps and makeshift homes in the aftermath of the earthquake.

The outcome of a basic photography workshop for youth, organized by UNICEF in collaboration with the volunteer group Community Speak, the exhibition captured insightful revelations by children.

"The overall objective of this project was for young people to express, in a safe way, their experiences and views after the Oct. 8 earthquake. For other stakeholders, this was to expose them to the needs and issues faced by earthquake-affected children through their images and words. In the process it gave some an opportunity to learn basic photo skills," said Irene Sanchez, a UNICEF communications officer in Muzaffarabad.

Twenty boys and 20 girls between the ages of 10 and 16 took the 15-hour training workshops earlier this year at Thori Park Camp (in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan-controlled Kashmir) and Kastra Camp (in Mansehra, North West Frontier Province).

The selection was quite random, as Sanchez said, "These were among the children living in camps and attended camp schools."

After the workshop, each child was given a basic Kodak camera to capture images of different aspects of life in the camps, family members, friends, school teachers, sources of water, dispensaries and reconstruction work. From a pile of more than 2,000 pictures, 40 were selected for the exhibition.

"During the last training session, the children critiqued and selected the pictures to be exhibited, based on the skills taught to look critically at the composition, lighting and the meaning behind their chosen photos," explained Sanchez. "Through a combination of basic photography training and brainstorming around the needs and issues in their lives, children were encouraged to think about what is important to them and to practice life skills, such as respect for others' opinions, sharing, negotiation."

Emrys Schoemaker of Community Speak, who conducted the workshops, said: "What I see today is a testimony of the resilience and courage of these children. Through the images I see hope for their future as they return to their villages."

Despite the difficult situation of living in a camp, as reflected in these images, the children were able to capture emotions, smiles, strength, courage and hope in the faces of both the children and adults.

"Before we conducted the photography exhibition, we carried out a small exercise in which we asked these children to draw what they considered was the most important thing in their life. Almost everyone drew their home," said Schoemaker.

As the internally displaced people return to their villages, with the closing down of camps set up in the immediate aftermath of the quake, the government has entered the reconstruction phase.

But the work of aid agencies is far from over. Schoemaker is very keen that "even as they pack up and go back, we'd very much like the little voices to continue to be highlighted and not muffled by adults." He says that can help heal their emotional and psychological scars.

According to him, the exhibit's images and words may be the best way for families and parents to learn children's feelings and how they came to grips with the catastrophe.

"They (children) transmit a message of hope. All of them expressed their need to return to their villages and to live in a better environment," said Sanchez.

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Albion Monitor   April 20, 2006   (

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