March 28, 2020
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Trauma of the Undead

Among the first spot despatches from Ground Zero speaks of a devastated town.

Trauma of the Undead
In a makeshift medical camp on a local cricket ground, a good 24 hours after the quake, Avinash Vaidya, an officer with the Home Guard, stands hopelessly among the dead. "I'm waiting for the man who does the head count," he says. Some feet away, there is a cart with some medicines. One man asks, "Do you know what a Combiflam is? The doctors are busy and my son needs it." By his side is Prabhubhai: four of his grown children are trapped in a building. He's come to the camp desperately seeking help. A little distance away, a stray dog tries to sniff the dead. There are too many people dead for anyone to restore human dignity in Bhuj.

Located 20 km from the epicentre of the quake, Bhuj is today in utter ruin. The 51st Republic Day will be mourned for years to come. It was around 8.45 am when the ground shook furiously for two minutes. When it was over, half of Bhuj was wiped out. Now there's hardly any building in the ghost town that's not scarred. There's not one townsperson not affected. Fear-stricken people camp in the open though the mercury dips to 10º C at night.

Those who survived are taking their dead on vegetable carts to cremation and burial grounds. Some wait outside amid the debris. Because their parents or children are somewhere in there. A sunken commercial building, called Shah-Point, has over 50 people trapped inside, some of them screaming out that they are alive. Through a crevice one can see a man stuck between two huge concrete slabs. His eyes respond to shouts from his friends. There are many such buildings where those who are trapped clearly outnumber the "officially dead".

The area within a 100-km radius of the epicentre has a population of over 4 lakh. Though towns closer to the epicentre, like Ratnal, witnessed stronger tremors, Bhuj is more densely populated. In and around Bhuj, in villages like Kukma and Morgar that lie on the side of a long cracked road, bodies are scattered around.

In most of the villages around Bhuj, not a single army personnel or cop had paid a visit till Saturday afternoon. Some villagers are taking the injured to the medical camps. The general hospital itself collapsed, making such camps the only option. The biggest camp in Bhuj is the one on the cricket ground. A dozen bodies are lying in the open near the gate, unclaimed possibly because the rest of the family are either dead or trapped in the debris. One man taps my shoulder and points to the body of his daughter-in-law. She had passed away on Friday midnight. "Please, help me," he pleads. Twenty hours after the earthquake, only 12 medical interns are there to attend to some 700 injured people flocking the camp. It's the same for other camps.

About 24 hours after the quake struck, only 20 bulldozers had reached Bhuj. Worse, most of them had to be deployed in other affected areas like Anjar. The deputy collector of Bhuj says "most of the buildings in Bhuj have collapsed and lots of people are buried inside. We don't know if they are dead or alive. And we have no help. We don't know how to extricate those people from under the debris. There are not enough bulldozers or men".

The rescue work was abandoned in the night because there were not enough generators or volunteers. The work slowly restarted in a handful of buildings at about 8 in the morning. In one of the buildings, some six armymen walked inside and then came out and asked a passing motorist, "Do you have a helmet? If you have any loved ones trapped in this building, you can prepare for the last rites. "

Interestingly, the central jail at Bhuj too fell. And some 50 inmates escaped, according to a lone constable manning an ad hoc control room outside the deputy collector's office. Here, suddenly, the Gujarat industry minister, Suresh Mehta, appears. When asked to react to the situation, his car reverses and vanishes.
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