Kyrgyzstan earthquake: eyewitness account

Published: 9 October 2008 0:00 CET

When the first Red Crescent disaster response team reached the site of Nura village, they were greeted with scenes of desolation and despair. A strong earthquake of 6.6 on the Richter scale had levelled the village in the evening of 5 October, leaving 75 people dead, and at least 90 injured.

“When we arrived in the village of Nura I saw something that made me shudder. The roofs of homes were just lying on the ground in the streets as if the walls had been swallowed up by the earth, and it seemed that everyone around me was crying.”  Lena Pavlyuk, a member of the Red Crescent Society of Kyrgyzstan (RCSK) disaster response team, recalls the first minutes of their arrival in the village of Nura, only hours after a strong earthquake of 6.6 on the Richter scale struck the region in the evening of 5 October.

Nura is situated in the Osh district of Kyrgyzstan. It is a remote village where sheep breeders have been living for centuries, grazing their herds in the mountain pastures.  The devastating earthquake left 75 people dead, at least 90 injured, and destroyed almost all the homes of Nura’s 900 inhabitants, burying their possessions under the rubble. “Almost every family lost a loved one. Out of 75 people killed, 31 are children,” Lena notes.

Some 700 survivors are in urgent need of help before the first snow falls, expected in about two weeks.

Overcoming the shock

The number of casualties in Nura could have been even higher were it not for local elections which had just taken place that Sunday.  Most of the adult population, who are herders, normally go to sleep early, but that evening they lingered in the school yard, waiting for the results of the vote. The children and the elderly all went to bed. 

It took more than 30 minutes for survivors to overcome the shock of the tremor. Young and old called out for help and some began to crawl out of the rubble.  Electricity was cut and lighting was provided by the headlights of passing Kyrgyz and Chinese trucks which stopped in the ruined village.  People dug the still warm bodies of their relatives out of the rubble of houses which are built of clay and straw. 

“The State reacted immediately,” says Aygul Ataganova, head of the RCSK disaster management department who participated in the coordination meeting convened by the Ministry of emergencies. She ensured that a Red Crescent truck carrying winterized tents and blankets from the nearest warehouse was on its way to the disaster site on Monday morning.  Food and warm clothes were sent by the authorities.

At 10:30 the Red Crescent first aid team set out for the disaster site from Bishkek on board of a State helicopter and arrived in Nura at 14:30.  Another 19 disaster management staff and volunteers arrived by car from the Red Crescent branch in Osh – the closest regional centre, some 300 kilometers away.  

“When we arrived, most of the injured had been evacuated by helicopter to the city of Osh,” says Aygul Ataganova. “We helped set up the tent camp and stayed with the people to provide them with moral support.  We delivered what was needed,” she said, after having spent the whole night with the traumatized population.

“Moral support is not an easy thing when you are face-to-face with a person who has just lost all nine members of his family or even only one,” explains Lena Pavlyuk. “People were crying, they refused to eat, to put on warm clothes, to speak, or even to move. Many fainted. But we were by their side and did what we felt could help.”

“Timely and efficient”

“The team acted quickly and professionally,” says Rosa Shayahmetova, secretary general of the KRCS. “All our actions were closely coordinated with the State and other agencies. The President of Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiev, who visited the ravaged village, called the Red Crescent action ‘timely and efficient’.”

“This coordination during a disaster does not happen by chance,” underlines Aygul Ataganova.  “It is the result of years of preparation, training and simulation exercises that helped us work together, mobilize resources, coordinate our action and act as one during the disaster.”

According to Rosa Shayahmetova, the delivery of relief was hampered by very poor telephone connections. She also pointed to the need for additional training in psychological support for the KRCS teams. “This is the knowledge we particularly need today. Our staff provides this type of help intuitively, but good feelings must be reinforced by proper training”.  

Red Crescent teams are continuing assessments which will serve as the basis for an operation to support the affected families over the coming months.  Nura is only one of 80 villages in the affected region of Alai, that has a total population of approximately 100,000. The toll of deaths and injuries is likely to rise as final assessments have not yet come in from all the affected areas.

The government has called for support from the international community to address the imemdiate and mid-term needs of the people affected by the earthquake. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies released 220,000 Swiss francs from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund to support the Red Crescent Society of Kyrgyzstan emergency operations. These funds will serve to provide nearly 1,000 people with food, bedding, hygiene articles and kitchen sets over the next three months.