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Syed Nazakat in Churunda , India-Pakistan border 

It is early afternoon in this remote hamlet which is forever poised on the threshold of history and tragedy. Mist still hangs in the air. The men are gathered in the village square. Roshan Bee is seated on the rooftop of what remains of her house.   

Coughing and wincing in pain, Roshan Bee walks along the grass track, between her neighbours reconstructed shack and rubbles of her crumbled house. Her eyes foretell no good days. In her eyes one can see reflected  the tragedy of the people devastated by the October 8 earthquake. We can also see in those darting eyes a rare resilience peculiar to mountain people.    In this village which houses 230 families, 30 people died and 78 got injured in the earthquake.

As a weak winter sun fights a losing battle with the freezing cold, Bee, her son Mohamed Akhtar, 14, are still busy clearing the debris of their house. Bee like 945 homeless residents of this village which lies right on the LoC in Uri sector at 7,500 feet above sea level, has given up waiting for aid, choosing instead to rebuild her own house.   

“We know it is impossible to rebuild our home this winter, but we want to rebuild it as early as possible”, says Bee standing on the rubble near a hoarding that reads ‘God helps those who help themselves’. 

Bee like others here will need a lot of divine intervention.  

Her face is creased with grief from the death of her elder son – Mohamed Ashraf, 22, the only bread earner of the family and one month old grandson Yasir ,- who died in the October 8 quake.   “I don’t even have their photographs”,  she says while digging up the rubble. 

Bee has never known a happy day, except perhaps the day of her marriage or her elder son’s marriage. None of these happy events lasted long. In these parts only the dark days last for ever.  

Her husband died just six years after her marriage, leaving behind three small kids. Now her 22-year son died in the quake just one year after his marriage. “He (Mohamed Ashraf ) was the first from the village to go for government job. He was a teacher”, she says while adding she received heaps of marriage proposals for his son.  

“She stooped for a while then continued. But within one minute my whole life was in ruins.   

It is easy here to spot the families where people have died. The whole village is dotted with red flags, signifying the loss of human life and yellow flags, signifying the loss of livestock. Churunda, high above Uri town, atop the desolate mountains overlooking Haji Pir area of Pakistan, is an impossible place as any can be. 

The Arctic would seem a better choice. The wind is always howling as if mocking at the few residents there and the snow comes in savage quantities. There is no shop in the village and Uri some 26 kms away is the nearest market town. And when the village is buried under snow it is isolated till April next year.  

Then for Bee and others who live in mountains, survival will be more difficult. The only sign of the government here is a primary school just reopened a fortnight after it got destroyed in the quake. The army has restored the electricity in the village.   The Himalayan winter has already fired its opening blitz for over 75,000 homeless families across earthquake-hit regions in J&K.

Like many other quake-hit hilly remote villages, this village has had this season’s first snowfall, about one and half feet. But it melted within days. Just a few glistening patches of icy powder remained on the slopes. This marks the start of a potentially deadly four-month season for quake survivors.  

The reprieve is alarmingly temporary.

“We were born here and we know how this place behaves in winter”, she says, gesturing at the mountain. 

The night temperature has already dropped to as low as – 10 C.

Being a remote village means that the NGOs and government servants will never make it there. There is no road network and many relief workers are also saying that there is now restriction on the movement in the villages which lie very close to the border, making transportation to and from most of them impossible. Two doctors and a lady doctor came here two days after the quake and since then no doctor has visited the village.  

Families usually stock grain, fuel, and other essential commodities for the period that they are cut off. This year, with family stocks decimated and very little cash in hand, no one is sure how Bee and others in the village will survive the winter.I asked Bee why she can’t just get the hell out of the place before it starts snowing. “My roots are here. I don’t want to live in refugee camps where you are at the mercy of others”, she says bluntly.  

Bee has to finish her work quickly, because her young son, Aslam, 11, a 6th class student will be returning home from the primary school, hungry. 

The school has reopened just a fortnight before after it got destroyed in the quake. It is the last working day at school, before it gets closed for the two-month long winter vocation.   “I have to prepare food for him”, she says. She stopped for a while then continued. “We just have thirty kg rice bag and dal in our home” 

The tragedy of Roshan Bee is that while she is facing hard time here, she has no news about her two brothers who migrated to PoK in the early nineties like other 27 families of this small village. “I have no news about them. I just want to see my brothers and their family”, she says. 

Her hope to see her brothers was sparked off again last month when India and Pakistan agreed to open LoC just below her village. But to her disappointment LoC was opened only for the exchange of relief.  

It is very hard here to tell which area belongs to Pakistan and which India. The only thing which divided this village from Pakistan is an Uri rivulet or what Pakistan calls Hajipeer nallah, which remains dry most of the time.  

Further away from Roshan Bee’s destroyed house, a fire is kindled, bodies huddle close to it. This is Beebee Jan, 42, Roshan Bee’s neighbour who has also lost her young daughter, Manshe, 18, in the quake. Despite being very close, Roshan Bee hardly used to talk with Beebee Jan before quake. In remote hamlets residents strangely keep to themselves.   But now quake has transformed them and they have started communicating. Roshan Bee has become very close to Beebee Jan after quake. “We have become just like sisters, says Roshan Bee. “We had meals together, we cry together. She will tell me what will happen to her and I will tell her what is happening to me”, adds Beebee Jan.   “You know we see just hardships in our life and we are afraid what will our children will see”, says Beebee Jan, sobbing uncontrollably. 

It is easy to be a cynic here.

In the past 50 years or more this village at the edge of LoC, has been soaked in blood.. In 1947 tribal invaders plundered the village, after that war, this village like Kashmir got divided in two parts by the Line of Control (LoC). Then came India-Pakistan border tension and artillery shelling. The gruesome signature of this border hostility is still too apparent here. Then in 2003, the village got fenced out from the rest of country. For the last two and half years the people were enjoying a bit of peace and freedom after ceasefire between India and Pakistan, but then came this divine wrath in the form of the earthquake leaving this village totally destroyed. Needless, to say, tragedy and death are frequent visitors here.  

As dusk gathers, the village square is now quiet. Children and women sit in the doorways of their destroyed homes clad in donated clothes, their only possession. Bee carries wood logs to her tent. She is joined by her sons, Akhtar, and then Aslam, and then by Beebee Jan. As we leave the village, a melodic flute music resounds from somewhere in the village.  

Tomorrow will be another day of work and survival.

(Sahara Time, January 7, 2006

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