Our story begins in October 2005, when a magnitude 7.6 earthquake changed Pakistan-administered Azad Jammu Kashmir forever. The quake shook a mountainous region around Muzaffarabad, a city 100 kilometres northeast of Islamabad, at the foothills of the Himalaya mountains. At least 86,000 people were killed, more than 69,000 injured.
Not far from the epicentre of the earthquake is the village of Chalabandi, which was virtually swept away by a massive landslide. The only way out for any survivors in Chalabandi and nearby villages was across the mud and rubble of the landslide. A road of sorts led to a landing pad for helicopters. Volunteers brought in food, medicine, blankets and tents for survivors but many aid workers refused to go to Chalabandi for fear of looters.
Wahid lived in Chalabandi with his mum, dad and two younger siblings, a sister and brother. As with many school children, both siblings did not survive when their school building crumbled and collapsed, such was the violence of the earthquake. Wahid’s terror was shaped by something affecting no other; the 10 year old had become blind in his first year of birth through a medical condition that could not be treated because of a lack of medical services.
It’s now 2016. The last 11 years have been difficult, Wahid admits. Rebuilding their lives has been slow. An uncle has helped them to restore their demolished house. Wajid’s father has found poorly-paid work as a security guard in a nearby school. The noise, confusion and uncertainty of the earthquake is not a distant memory for Wahid has a daily reminder: his mother continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, so great was the impact of the earthquake on her.
But Wahid has a vision. With education as a priority, he studies humanities and arts subjects at an institute that specialises in educating people who live with disabilities. Dedication and commitment is necessary: the institute is about four hours travel from Chalabandi on local transport. Each week, for the past few years, he has made the journey to attend classes and tutorials.
Wahid has had to learn to deal with the torments of unsympathetic people. “People,” he said, “injured my feelings by laughing at me. They did not help me, but just made me a source of their humour.“
One day he heard Syban (Shelter) a community development radio program broadcast on a local radio station by an HCR partner. A guest was talking about the rights of people living with disabilities (PWDs) and how they can lead a productive life like anyone without disabilities. Inspired, Wahid contacted the radio program with an offer to tell his story of pursuing an education despite being blind. All he wanted was for people to change their attitude toward PWDs: to accept them, to support them. His words were passionate and, unusually for someone speaking on the radio in Pakistan, very direct in his appeal. “Although I have a disability I have the vision and the courage to live like normal people. I want to be a part of changing our community. All of you listeners could have a child or family member, just like me, who becomes disabled through no fault of their own. I am a member of this community so please consider me, and those like me, human beings!’’
The story doesn’t end there.
Syban is dedicated to empowering people to tell their stories and contribute to discussion and social learning. Wahid’s appearance led him to being asked to join an advisory group for a local disability NGO and to counsel other PWDs. Not only that, the NGO now provides Wahid dedicated transport for his journey from Chalabandi to his college in the distant town.