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Syed Nazakat in Uri, India-Pakistan border

On the outskirts of Kamalkote near freshly dug graves, Atiqua, 19, waits for hope to fall from the skies. She, her elder brother and her mother were the only ones of a household of 9 to survive the devastating earthquake that tore open the stunningly beautiful part of Kashmir which we call paradise on earth. Atiqua’s face is creased with grief, as if she has aged in a single day. One moment she sits silently with prayer on her lips and the next moment she sobs uncontrollably. That is all what the thousands of people who survived the massive earthquake of 7.6 Richter on October 8, that pulverised the far-flung areas in the northern and western parts of Kashmir and Muzaffarabad on the other side of the Line of Control, can do.

Musadiq Hussain, principal of the nearby government school says that he has buried 75 people in the village. “I buried 45 the day before yesterday, and 30 yesterday and there is no news about many villagers who went missing,” he said. As per government figures 107 bodies have been recovered from this small village which housed some two hundred odd houses near the border town Uri. Nazeer Ahmed, 22, a labourer from Jabla, is one of those who lived to tell the tale. At 9.20 in morning of 8 October, he says, he was outside his home ready to go for work when he felt the earth slipping from under his feet.

“I heard a strange thunderous sound from somewhere, a sound I have never heard before. I thought it was the sound of bombs. It felt like doomsday”. Nazeer, who is critically injured but alive, was eventually, picked up by an Air Force helicopter and taken to Army 419 field ambulance in Uri, the medical camp, put up after the quake destroyed the Army hospital in Uri along with barracks and housing compartment. In his village alone over 250 people have died and all property destroyed. The clock strikes ten in the night in border town Uri. But nobody has gone home. Homes have turned into rubble. Braving the numbing cold and hunger, villagers are spending days in search of food and nights in the open wondering why the gods ditched them. And if nature’s fury was not enough, came the rains and aftershocks, triggering fresh panic among people. The margin of survival is extraordinarily narrow; sometimes it closes entirely.

One woman Sahara Time met at Salamabad in front of her two-story destroyed house is wailing uncontrollably and beating her chest. Her sister who lives in Mardiyaan has lost six members of her family. In Uri there is death and debris every where. Uri has been cut off from its dozens of remote villages. The roads have been blocked and the only way to reach out to the totally devastated far off villages of Uri is to travel by narrow landslide prone damaged roads and then walk on foot to reach there.

It is early morning in Kamalkote, thirty kilometres from Uri, when this correspondent and a few others reached here at this small landlocked village. Climbing over flattened houses, school buildings, destroyed mosques and ruined shops, it is like a journey through atomized left-overs from some forgotten war. Desperate people, walking barefoot in search of food, medicine and shelter are all over. They think we are angels of hope. The early morning temperature is chilling and children are swollen with cold, waiting for sun to come out to warm them. The families cling to life on an unforgiving terrain. All along the wrecked Uri – Kamalkote road, wailing women, angry men and frightened children greet those who pass by. At one place on the road, where the army’s helipad is located, some women and children are waiting for the army’s chopper to airlift them to Uri. “Is there anybody who has not suffered?” We asked the man who had led us to the village. He shakes his head sadly and says no. “Nearly all are dead. The village has become a big graveyard”, he says.

In Kashmir the estimated death toll is 2500 (official figure is 1400) and could be nearer 5000 after all the dead have been counted. The earthquake has left over two million homeless in Pakistan, while in J&K, near about two lakh people are homeless. Hundreds of villages of Baramulla, Sopore, Uri, Kupwara, Kernah and Pooch bore the brunt of the earthquake. But Uri is worst hit by the quake, where one lakh people are homeless and death toll is said to be over one thousand. Six kilometres away from Kamalkote, atop the mountain lies Mardyaan, where according to the villagers, dozens of people are lying dead with no one to even pick them up and put them in the grave. Vultures, those winged messengers of death and destruction, are gliding the thermals above the village, biding their time before they start plucking out the bodies. “There is nobody there who can bury bodies. There is not a single house left which has not been destroyed by earthquake”, says Lateef Ahmed, 28, who has just come from Mardyaan to Kamalkote to get some food for his children. He has lost four family members. There is no news about the shepherds who along with their herds went to mountains on the morning of last Saturday hours before quake hit the village. The tragic part of the story is that even after five days of earthquake nobody from administration has gone to Mardiyaan. At Saria Bandi, Abdul Rashid, a police officer, is registering the names of dead people. He says that he has collected over three hundred bodies from the small villages like Kamalkote, Sarai Bandi, Sultan Daki, Kurdi Barzala, Basgaraan, Jabda, Shahdara and Dulanja. “But there are dozens of remote villages where nobody has yet reached. We fear that the toll will be very high”, says Rashid.

The angry grief-stricken villagers are surrounding him, pleading with him to send cops to rescue the villagers who have been trapped inside the debris at Mardyaan, a village atop on the mountain where from one have clear view of Pakistan side of Kashmir. “I can do nothing. I have only eight policemen with me”, Rashid shrugged his shoulder. On the other side of river Jhelum, just near Udoosa, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) personnel are fishing out bodies of sixty labourers who were working with the BRO when quake hit the area. Out of 60, they have already recovered 58 bodies. Two bodies can be seen floating in the river. It is tragic theatre, the like of which only happens when the gods lets go of their own people. On the same road at Salamabad, the old men, women and children are lined up on the both sides of road waiting for someone who can give them food and warm clothes. Their swollen faces and frightened eyes tell a tragic story, a story much different from the one when, just six months earlier the Srinagar- Muzafferabad road was thrown open after five decades of war and fear and there was the joy of innocence and euphoria on their faces. The victims of history have now become victims of nature’s fury. The Indian army troops who are posted all along 720 km LoC, which divides Kashmir into two parts –India part and Pakistani one – had to live through hell if at all they survived. The bunkers have been destroyed and they have no weaponry and food. The army posts, barracks, bunkers and residential quarters in Uri and Karnah have been flattened. But despite that the army is reaching out to the remote inaccessible border villages. The Army has pushed in MI- 17 and Cheetak helicopters to airlift the people from the cut off places and to drop food and other things to villagers and army personnel who have been badly hit by the earthquake. “Everyday the choppers are doing 30 to 50 sorties to reach otherwise inaccessible people. We are sending ration, medicine and warm clothes to the people who have been trapped in unreachable areas”, said a senior Air Force commander. According to Indian Air Force handout, from 8 October to 12 October, the Air Force airlifted 513 civilians and 219 army jawans from various border areas in Uri alone. Eight corpses have just been airlifted from Udoosa, the last village on this side of the line of control. But now the army officers are saying that there is no point in trying to airlift the bodies. “Our priority is to airlift the injured people. Those who are dead are dead now. We can’t airlift them. The bodies at this point have also developed the tendency of decomposition. So it is almost impossible to airlift the bodies”, said Dr Saurabh Dawra at the army hospital in Uri.

Some 170 kilometres from Uri, in Karnah, the scene is more devastating. Karnah is the closest border belt to Muzaffarabad – the epicentre of the quake. There is no accurate figure available on how many people have died in Karnah’s 42 villages having a population of 47,000. But according to government figures over four hundred bodies have been recovered so far and the toll is rising with every passing day. The hills are dotted with the destroyed houses and there are many villages which have been completely wiped out from the face of earth. The district hospital in Tangdar has been reduced to rubble. In the last four days 2000 injured (out of which 20 died) have been treated in the compound of what remains of the hospital there. The rush of patients is unabated. Long queues can be seen outside the telephone booth set up by army at the main road.

Like no other natural disaster in living memory of Kashmiris, the earthquake induced a planetary torrent of sorrow. The massive outpouring of money and supplies from public and private sources overwhelmed the relief workers and government agencies trying to reach it to the people. “You are the first person to stop and ask us how we were doing”, an old man at Baderkote village in far off Karnah told this correspondent four days after the earthquake. “We have got no food, water or medical supplies from anyone”, he complained. Where coordination is lacking, chaos results. At Tangdar, a family who lost two of its members and house says that aid-distribution system is ‘completely chaotic’. Whosoever runs up to the truck and grabs, gets food. The workers have no idea who actually needs aid. At many places, hungry and angry villagers attacked vehicles loaded with relief materials.

On Friday, thousands of people thronged the famous Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar. They bowed, asking for God’s mercy and forgiveness. “We have been dying for the last sixteen years. Last year we had the deadly snowfall. Now this devastating quake. God forgive us,” says the Imam who leads prayers, and in a one voice the followers say “Ameen”. In their hearts, they have the humbling understanding of the awesome power of nature. They know they belong to the cursed valley where life always revolves around tragedies.

(Sahara Time, October 22, 2005)

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