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6153Kashmir: life after the earthquake

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  • Zafar Khan
    Jan 15, 2006
      Kashmir: life after the earthquake
      Three months ago, a devastating earthquake struck
      Kashmir. But now, as the winter snows arrive, the
      survivors face new dangers
      By Laurie Lewis
      Published: 14 January 2006


      Most deaths occurred in the first tremor lasting four
      seconds. Half of the dead were school children, buried
      in concrete. In all 73,000 people died in those four
      seconds on 8 October last year. In the light of recent
      catastrophes - the tsunami, the Niger famine, the New
      Orleans hurricane - it's perhaps not surprising that
      the Kashmir earthquake has dropped out of the news.
      But now the new year heralds the late arrival of
      winter snow to an area paralysed by chaos and
      suffering. There are several hundred aid agencies
      operating in and around the worst-hit towns of Bagh,
      Muzaffarabad and Balakot, trying to cope with 3.5
      million displaced persons who have lost everything and
      are trying to survive in the open in freezing

      As the Chinook helicopter service in the zone has been
      reduced, the battle to keep survivors supplied with
      food and shelter is putting the fragile road system
      under intense strain. In marked contrast to the strict
      regime on the UK's roads - bus lanes, speed cameras,
      congestion charges, MOTs, etc - in Kashmir f an
      unrestrained and gleeful anarchy reigns. Highly
      decorated juggernauts breeze up and down the Karakoram
      Highway overladen in gravity-defying full-tilt
      abandon. And despite the psychic skills of the local
      drivers roaring gung-ho through the mountains, there
      are casualties.

      Three thousand feet above the valley, the road that
      follows the River Kunhar from Murree to Muzaffarabad
      is cracked and broken. Najam Arifeen piles gallon tins
      of cooking oil neatly on the side of the road. His
      truck lies on its side like a beached whale, most of
      its cargo of flour still in place. He lifts his hands
      and shrugs. It's not clear whether the buffalo lying
      on the precipice was already dead when the truck
      overturned, or was the cause of the accident. What's
      certain is that the road is in an appalling state of
      repair and the front tyres of the truck are blatantly
      lacking in tread. Vehicles hoot, wave and trundle past
      offering no help, keen to reach their destinations in

      I ask Arifeen about what happened when the earthquake
      struck three months ago. He was f two hours out of
      Rawalpindi and passing through Murree.

      "I heard a crunching noise," he says. "The truck was
      shaking and I thought it was a blow-out. When I
      stopped the truck was still vibrating. Strangely
      Murree was not touched, no damage at all, but at
      Muzaffarabad it was chaos, roads blocked, everything
      collapsed, people covered in dust ..."

      Incidents of vehicles crashing into the valley are not
      unknown but that does not act as a brake on drivers
      speeding like a column of ants on a pheromone trail.
      Supplies, however, are getting through. There is
      little back-up, no garages, no AA, but there is the
      military, which efficiently removes obstacles such as
      fallen trees and the carcasses of dead buffalos.

      In the centre of Balakot, the worst hit of the towns,
      the main bridge miraculously still stands, although it
      can no longer support heavy traffic. Outside town the
      army has constructed a new heavy-duty bridge, the
      Hussaini, in record time.

      Colonel Saeed, the CO in Balakot, tells me that "in
      the early days of the disaster nobody came out. We
      distributed newspapers, invited children to attend
      emergency schools and provided a shuttle service, but
      they were too afraid to come: they had seen their
      friends die. So we instituted a rally to get children
      back to school. Our aim is to rebuild schools, homes
      and infrastructure. Our soldiers are spending their
      leave working all hours to help civilians."

      Every evening at eight o'clock Colonel Saeed holds
      briefings at which aid agencies and the army update
      each other on their progress. Primitive schools have
      been set up in the camps and are well attended by both
      sexes, albeit in freezing conditions, and include
      morale-boosting games of cricket. The military
      recognises the value in being seen to help civilians.
      That's certainly a welcome respite from the situation
      along the Line of Control with Indian-administered

      As in the case of Greece helping Turkey in a recent
      earthquake, there are signs of a softening of attitude
      between the India and Pakistan governments, if not a
      rapprochement. The two countries have released details
      of four new bus-routes between the disputed
      territories, as well as a train link further south.
      The military could learn a thing or two from the
      Kashmiris about survival. While young soldiers drafted
      into the mountains in appalling winter conditions last
      barely a few weeks, the Kashmiris with generations of
      inherited resilience accept their lot with impressive

      Faisal Aziz and his granddaughters Zenna and Alisa are
      waiting for transport to Bagh in the village of
      Chattar. He is reluctantly leaving his village 9,000ft
      high in the Azad mountains for an uncertain future in
      the camps. "I am used to these winters but I am not
      used to living outdoors," he says. "My daughter and
      her husband are dead, and now I worry for my
      grandchildren. So we leave, it is necessary ..." Aziz
      is typical of many thousands of subsistence farmers
      living at altitude. A harsh life at the best of times,
      during the long winter they batten down and live on
      their stores.

      Now with homes destroyed, families and supplies wiped
      out, possessions inaccessible, traumatised and
      freezing, the months ahead are looking bleak. Aziz has
      no choice but to risk f disease in the camps and
      further trauma, rather than tough it out in what is
      left of his home.

      Helicopters can reach afflicted towns in good weather
      but cannot land in the mountains. They can make drops
      but there is no way to distribute them: most of the
      donkeys and livestock that can cope with the terrain
      were killed outright or have starved. Trekking guides
      and mountain rescue teams could make a difference but
      resources are at full stretch.

      In the camps the daily struggle is made more difficult
      in cramped, unsanitary conditions, with no privacy, no
      heating, no light, no running water, no latrines and
      sometimes no food. With tents collapsing under the
      weight of snow, and cases of frostbite increasing,
      Andrew McCloud, a spokesperson for the UN, observes
      that "there is absolutely no margin for error".

      "If there is an external shock, a stronger winter than
      normal, money doesn't come through, then we're in big,
      big trouble," he says. "There is no room for people in
      the West to sit back and say 'that job's been done'."

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