Bena Ben survived one of the most devastating earthquakes in India in the early 2000s by grabbing her kids and fleeing her traditional mud house seconds before it collapsed. Lives were saved but the disaster left her family homeless. That was 17 years ago. She now lives in a concrete home like many others in Nadapa village in Gujarat state's Bhuj region, helped by a Catholic Church agency that continues to do charitable work in the area. Other Catholics in southern India also provided rehabilitation for quake-hit victims in Nepal
last year. But in Burj, the 7.7-magnitude temblor
that lasted for two minutes on the morning of Jan. 26, 2001 is estimated to have killed up to 21,000 people and injured 167,000.
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It also destroyed nearly 400,000 homes in 949 villages across the region, leaving them at the mercy of government and various charity organizations. Ben said there were no casualties among the 400 families that made up her village but the disaster rendered most of them helpless. "The entire village was devastated," she said. "Our houses were reduced to piles of mud. We had nowhere to sleep, no food with which to feed our children. We were poorer than poor." However, cement-plastered houses have since replaced those "piles of mud" and bikes and cars can be seen parked in front of many of them, indicating a new level of prosperity they have achieved in this arid desert land. A common sign on all of the new properties is a painted monogram of Caritas India
, the social service arm of the Indian bishops' conference. Observers say this shows how the agency does not discriminate when it comes to doing the Lord's work and has chosen to help the afflicted despite the fact that none of the affected villagers are Christians. "Now I have a beautiful home where we can live happily," said Ben as she describes in detail her one-bedroom house replete with a dining room and kitchen. Village head Devji Bai said everyone appreciates the church's contributions and hard work. "The quake shattered our lives for a while but with the aid of Caritas we have not only rebuilt our lives, we have made them better," the 55-year-old told ucanews.com. Catholic volunteers including priests and nuns surveyed the village, which led to the construction of 250 new houses provided to local residents free of charge. "We couldn't believe our luck. Initially some of us were suspicious [about their motives]. But when we found them to be acting out of genuine goodwill, we were thrilled and fully cooperated," he said. "Some people still harbored misgivings of the church and whatever possible designs it may have had, so they opted to work with other social organizations," he added. "But they are still struggling to get new homes, even now." Bai said the house meant he was able to concentrate on his trading business rather than constantly fret about the need to find a safe and warm shelter for him and his family. This ultimately led him to save enough money to build another, more spacious property nearby in which to live. But he still hasn't demolished the one paid for and built by Caritas. "I'm reluctant to do that because the house now serves as a shrine to Christian generosity, and I want to honor and treasure that memory," he said. The village leader added that social workers sent by the church also helped hundreds of villagers receive other benefits including government welfare schemes, which they would have missed for want of proper direction. The local unit of Caritas India in Rajkot Diocese, called the Kutch Jyoti Trust, built 3,264 houses for homeless quake survivors, according to its director, Father Jino George. He said the agency began working the area soon after the disaster and provided temporary shelters for thousands of families. "We also 'adopted' 14 villages and decided the people by building houses for them and helping to pay for their children's education," said the priest, who belongs to the Carmelite of Mary Immaculate congregation. "[Caritas] was also instrumental in building six schools, 12 community halls, toilets and water utilities," he added. Jostine Ben, 31, said the villagers were forever indebted to the church for putting roofs over their heads and keeping local kids ensconced in their studies. Ben, a schoolteacher, still remembers that fateful day when the earth began to move. She said she was attending a flag-hoisting event on school grounds to mark India's Republic Day when disaster struck. "The school was reduced to rubble before our very eyes," she said. "When I returned home our mud house had also been razed. Our families had to shelter in relief camps despite the biting cold." Those sent by the church also helped by providing people with food packets, tents, blankets, bed sheets and other basic amenities in the camps, she added. Father George said none of the beneficiaries were Christians. "But they have a high regard for Christians. They still approach us when they need advice," said the priest, who continues to visit the damaged villages.