Hope Times Two

Around noon on October 7, 2005, my Russian-born wife Nafisa gave birth by Caesarean section to our daughters, Lara and Hana. I had lived in the United States for over 20 years, but moved back to Islamabad in 2000 to be with my father during the final years of his life (he passed away in October 2004). I was working as a school principal, and now, with the arrival of our beautiful twin girls, we were on top of the world.

After spending the day at the hospital, my mother and I went home at about 9 p.m., while my sister-in-law Elmira, who had travelled from Moscow to be with us, stayed on with Nafisa and the babies.

I was so excited that I barely slept that night. Nafisa had asked me to bring her some fresh fruit, so the next morning I drove to a market next to the Margalla Towers apartment complex. Meanwhile, my mother remained on the top floor of our two-storey home.

Just before 9, as I was picking out some peaches and bananas, the ground started to move from side to side. At first I thought it was one of the minor earthquakes that happen here from time to time. I assumed it would soon end , but it didn't. The shaking became more violent and the air filled with a grinding and rumbling noise.

By now, everyone in the market had run outside and started praying. We were all scared. Finally, after several minutes, the earthquake stopped. That is when I noticed that part of the Margalla Towers had collapsed into a huge pile of rubble.

Shell-shocked survivors covered with blood were stumbling from the ruins of the collapsed building. It was like a bomb had gone off. I was numb.

Then I remembered Nafisa and the babies. Has the hospital been destroyed too? I thought in horror. I called Nafisa and my mother on my mobile and was told that everyone was safe.

Later I learned that when the ground started shaking, Nafisa, who was still recovering from her C-section, found the strength to pull out her IV and monitor lines. She and Elmira grabbed the babies and rushed out of the hospital.

By the time my mother and I arrived at the hospital, about an hour after the earthquake, many patients, including Nafisa and the babies, were resting on the lawn. Just as we were moving back into the building, at about 3 p.m., another very strong tremor hit. "We can't stay here any longer," I said. We packed everyone in the car and went home.

The aftershocks continued for several days. Whenever the shaking started, we just held the babies and tried to console each other. We felt utterly helpless.

Still, we were among the lucky ones. The earthquake had devastated much of Kashmir - thousands died and many more were left homeless. Many of our friends and acquaintances had been killed.

My school, which suffered no serious damage, reopened a few days after the earthquake. As I walked out of my office to morning assembly on that first day, dozens of students rushed towards me. "How is your family? Are you OK?" one eight grader asked. "Sir, when will the shaking stop?" another wanted to know. In the midst of so much chaos, they were looking for some reassurance and stability.

The following weeks at the school were tense. During the aftershocks, I had to sound the alarm to evacuate all 3000 students and 300 staff.

Much of the time the campus was strangely quiet. During recess, students would gather in small groups rather than run around and play, as they had before. As principal I was used to telling students to remain quiet and calm. Now I started to miss all that noise.

One of our students, Zohair Iqbal Haider, a popular 18-year-old who had been living with his uncle and aunt at the Margalla Towers, was killed during the earthquake. The boy's father, Iqbal Haider, a retired Pakistan Air Force officer who was serving as ambassador to Libya, returned home immediately. Just a few days later, he spoke to an assembly at my school. With tears running down his face, he recalled how his son had helped his aunt from the building after the earthquake, then returned to find his uncle. That's when the structure collapsed, killing both him and his uncle.

Despite his terrible loss, Iqbal Haider was philosophical. He said the earthquake had been caused by the inexorable movement of the earth's tectonic plates. "That is why we have these earthquakes and that is why we have the Himalayas, which give us life through their glaciers and rivers." In other words, the forces that caused so much suffering and sadness have also given us much to be thankful for.

Like so many people in Pakistan, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year trying to figure out why we had to endure this terrible disaster. I now believe God wanted to teach us humility. One minute I was on top of the world and the next I was at the bottom!

The key to recovering from this low point was family. Nafisa's strength through all this cannot be described. My mother's support and love had a calming affect on all of us. I couldn't thank Elmira enough for the sacrifice of leaving her husband and three children so that she could be with us. She finally returned home in December.

And in the middle of it all were our babies. During the mad chaos of the great earthquake and its aftermath, Lara and Hana were my anchor. I realized that a big smile when I look into their eyes, or a delighted shriek when I return home from work, was all I needed in life.

Life is now returning to Kashmir, as it came to me amidst intense destruction. My daughters are my guiding light to a hopeful future - filled with life.

This article, by Masood Ahmad, Adams State College director of student engagement and success, first appeared in the Reader's Digest Asia Pte. Ltd. In October 2006.