February 5: Young Vittal Partani is one of many volunteers who has been engaged in a singleminded task these last few days in the town of Bhachau that was devastated by the January 26 earthquake, in Gujarat. But there is something special about the 20 year-old and the youngsters accompanying him on the rescue mission.

All of them are orphans of the Latur earthquake disaster of 1993. Only this time around, their roles have reversed – from victims to rescuers.

The Circle of Life
The Circle of Life [Illustration by Anup Singh]
When Latur Quaked
The earthquake that struck Latur and Osmanabad in the state of Maharashtra in the early hours of September 30, 1993, measured 6.4 on the Richter scale. It was powerful enough to destroy the two regions, kill 30,000 people and bring life to a standstill for the survivors. Official statistics show that about 86 villages of the two districts – Latur and Osmanabad, were the hardest hit by the earthquake.

In fact Latur was regarded as India’s worst earthquake since Independence until the ground shook and buildings fell on people, in Kutch, Gujarat, last week. The earthquake measured 7.9 in the Richter scale and over 50,000 people are feared dead.

The Survivors
Vittal remembers vividly the trauma of that fateful day when, as a child of 12, he had watched his parents being crushed by tonnes of concrete in Latur.

“I saw 150 persons, including those closest to me, perish in that village on that horrible morning of September 30, 1993. I’ll do my damnest to try and save life. It’s precious,” he said in a report published in ‘The Hindustan Times’ newspaper.

Since then, certain things have become very clear to Vittal. Saving a life in distress is the most significant act that a human being can perform, he says. And, it is to undo some of the horror of the day when his parents died before his helpless eyes, that Vittal opted to volunteer for the rescue mission.
By saving as many precious lives as he can, he hopes to come to terms with the terrible guilt he feels for the fact that he was not able to prevent his parents’ deaths.

Vittal and his friends are helping rescue efforts at Bhachau, a town that has been completely ravaged by the earthquake. Atma Ram Joharti, a young volunteer from the same group, has a similar resolve. And a similar story to tell. Badly hurt by the earthquake at Latur, the boy spent two painful and agonizingly lonely months in hospital. Only to be then told that his entire family was dead.

The boys were given a second lease of life when the BJS adopted several Latur orphans soon after the earthquake and raised them. Their supervisor, Ashok Pawar, says that all the boys wanted to come to Gujarat the minute the news of the earthquake became public. However, only the senior volunteers were permitted to help out at Bhachau.

From victim to rescuer

The volunteers find that lending a helping hand in Bhachau is a therapeutic exercise for them. They work round-the-clock to help the victims, feeding them and offering them hope. For the first 45 days, they plan to feed the victims in an area spanning a 50-km radius. This will be followed up by efforts to help the quake survivors rebuild their lives.

The Circle of Life
The Circle of Life [Illustration by Anup Singh]

And that’s not all. The BJS is planning to adopt some Bhachau orphans. For the orphans of Latur, fate has truly come full-circle. From being frightened little boys with no one in the world to turn to in 1993, they will soon become young mentors to another group of frightened little boys whose world too came crashing down on them without warning one day.