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Syed Nazakat in Uri – India-Pakistan border

Nazeer Ahmed Beigh, 60, was among the few lucky people who crossed over to Muzaffarabad on the 14th Karvan-e-Aman bus to meet his sister and her kids. It was an occasion he never dreamt would come. After all Pakistan was so near and yet so far, his relatives just a stone throw away yet so distant. When he was in Muzaffarabad, the devastating earthquake struck killing tens of thousands people and rendering lakhs homeless. I think I am reborn, he says as he attends to customers at his provision shop in the border town Uri.   

There is still no news about seventeen passengers from J&K who travelled to PoK with Nazeer Ahmed or before him. Only the body of a man from Jammu region has been recovered from the debris and handed over to his relatives in Jammu. He was travelling to PoK for the first time in his life to meet his relatives there.  

Today Nazeer Ahmed is a busy man.  At his shop there is heavy rush of customers. We pulled whatever wooden planks we could from the rubble of my shop, Nazeer Ahmed says as he gives a flour bag to one of his early morning customers. He says once his business picks up he will be able to make the Rs twenty five thousand rupees which he has spent to reconstruct his shop and buy fresh stock. After quake business is very good. People have lost everything in quake. They just need everything from daily use provision to hardware items, he says.  

Two days before the earthquake on October 6, Nazeer Ahmed Beigh and his wife Manisha Begum, 50, boarded the Srinagar Muzaffarabad bus to see his sister who lives on the other side of the border in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. It was for the first time in the last twenty years that he finally managed to pay a visit to his sister, who lives in Pakistan side of Kashmir. 

A large number of people from the village gathered outside his home to bid him and his wife a warm adieu. There was serene silence and mountains were calm, but this calm was deceptive. From Muzzafarabad, he had to go to Rawalakot where his sister lived, on October 8. When the bus was atop the mountain, navigating the risky curves of roads, the earth shook.   

“We had no idea what had happened. I thought the driver has hit another bus”, he says as he recalls the frightful moment. He along with other passengers continued their journey on foot. We had an amazing lucky escape. All along the road upto Muzaffarabad city I saw only bodies, he says.   

For hours, they trekked along the main road, alone, past ruins that had so recently been teeming with life.  

Nobody spoke. 

“When my sister saw me she fell down, unable to believe that I am alive. They had the information that we are coming and they had heard that all those who were on the road that morning had been killed by the killer quake. She could not believe her eyes, she just hugged me. We remained there in the middle of road for hours, weeping”, he says.   

 It was a reunion soaked in tears of sorrow not joy. 

 After trekking over 60 kilometers on foot, sixty-year-old Nazeer and his wife returned to hometown Uri on November 17. “When I reached here I (Uri) was shocked at what I saw. My family was camped in open ground close to the house. Were you scared when you were trapped?” I asked my son. “No”, he said smiling, clearly very happy to see me.  

It is for the third time in this year that I am on this road. I was here when Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road was thrown open after fifty long years. There was euphoria as thousands of people thronged the road to bid adieu and loudly cheer the travelers from PoK. The people who over the years have been facing the brunt of Indo-Pakistan border tension thought the road would open a new chapter in their blood soaked past. 

I was here also when quake had left this beautiful region completely devastated. Mosques and buildings were shattered, restaurants destroyed, along with offices, hundreds of homes and also schools. In village after village rescuers – most of them local people  had been finding bodies all day. Many have been buried in a large grave dug in the nearby field. Doctors were struggling to cope with the amount of casualties. The women and men were crying. Help and hope were in short supply.  

Again while trekking on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road upto Kamaan Post the last place on this side of line of control, though the trauma is undoubtedly widespread but most of it is not visible now as people are busy gathering their lives together. Despite their loss and suffering, the people just want to get along with life. Yet there is a glint of hope in everybody’s eyes, the resilience in the face of poverty and disaster.  The Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road which has been closed after quake has now been repaired and already thrown open once again. 

Uri town, which was a picture of death and destruction, is abuzz with energy today. The shopkeepers stand out-front calling prospective customers to come inside. The roadside restaurants offer salt tea and Kashmiri Wazwan, the greengrocers and the second hand cloth sellers are doing brisk business. In the playground in the west of the town, near Salamabad where relief workers are distributing blankets, school bags, Kangris (Kashmiri fire pot) and warm clothes among quake survivors. The quake has unleashed a sprit of generosity and compassion among the people. “I have never seen people so compassionate and caring.   

Everyday I see college boys, traders, old people and women, army jawans -everybody – coming here with loads of eatables, clothes, blankets, kerosene, says one old passerby while pointing towards young relief workers who seemed to have come from Srinagar city, probably college students. “They are our real heroes”. 

As sun casts an ochore glow on the wintry sky, Nazeer Ahmed goes to offer his evening prayer in an open field just near a hoarding of the Srinagar Muzaffarabad bus services at the background of river Jhelum which divides this border town before flowing to Pakistan.  

As he returns, he removes his prayer cap and places it next to a cracked frame containing a faded image of Kaba, the grand mosque of Muslims in holy city of Mecca. “When I look at the devastation, I felt as small as anything. I realised that fame and money and everything like that does not matter”, he says.  

(Sahara Time, January 7, 2006)

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