Sat, Apr 29, 2006 - Page 9 News List

'Reckless' paraplegic helps quake survivors

After being paralyzed at 15, Sarmad Tariq surmounted tremendous obstacles, including the devastating Quetta earthquake and the New York Marathon, to make Pakistan a better place for the disabled


The luxury sixth-floor flat surveying Islamabad's biggest park had barely stopped shaking from side to side when Sarmad Tariq started arguing with his wife.

"I told her, `Zehra, you run, get out, get out,'" he said with a grin and a flourish of the Benson and Hedges he holds between his gnarled fingers with a specially designed cigarette holder.

"She was going `No way, you shut up,' and cursing me and saying the kind of things only a husband and wife can say to each other," he said.

As they bickered, they could see through their window dozens of people running from a billowing cloud of beige concrete dust, where another upscale apartment block had stood only minutes earlier.

Much like the accident 15 years earlier that made Tariq a quadriplegic, the 7.6-magnitude earthquake that hit Pakistan on Oct. 8 last year came without warning and left him totally helpless.

After the giant tremor he was stuck in bed, too heavy for his wife to lift him into his wheelchair, and terrified that their building would be the next to collapse.

"Then it struck me, `Bloody fool, she can walk, it's not her fault, she can walk.' But she wouldn't leave," he said.

Just as their shouting match reached its climax, Tariq's helper Asif banged on the door, gasping after running up the stairs from his basement room.

"He told me he saw the Margalla Towers collapse and thought `Who is going to get Sarmad out?'" Tariq said. "Then he threw me into my wheelchair and we went down in the elevator, even though you're not meant to."

Wearing a baseball cap and a hooded top, the 30-year-old's wry smile gives no hint of any lingering trauma. Appropriately, he has a job as a motivational speaker, using his experiences to inspire businesspeople.

But as he talks over the muzak in an Islamabad hotel it seems clear that the quake made him ask searching questions -- about how lucky he was to have help, about conditions for disabled people in the worst-hit areas, and about what life would be like for the maimed, the amputees and the paralyzed in a country where health facilities are rudimentary at best and a third of the population lives in poverty.

The earthquake killed around 75,000 people and injured at least 130,000 people, around half of them seriously. Of those around 700 were left paralyzed and another 700 had limbs amputated, according to Pakistan's Earthquake Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Authority.

`I was a vegetable'

Tariq's own life changed in a split second in 1991, when he was a sports-mad kid of 15 from a comfortably-off army background, who dreamed of winning an Olympic Gold for swimming.

While on holiday with his cousins in the eastern city of Gujranwala, he dived into a canal, without realizing the water was less than a meter deep.

"As I stood on the edge it was the last time that I would feel the weight of my body on my feet, but I didn't know it at that time," he said animatedly, almost as if describing an adventure.

"I dived in and I felt a searing pain. At first I thought I had broken my shoulder or arm but then I felt I couldn't move, I had to be dragged out. I broke my neck in two places and hence crushed my spinal cord. I was instantly left paralyzed, although I didn't know it then," he said.

Doctors at first were uncertain he would survive and kept the bad news from him, saying that he had only broken his ribs. Even when they did tell him what had happened, Tariq said he remained in denial for months until the truth sank in.

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