Kashmir's heart of darkness
Muzaffarabad was once the "city of light" in Pakistani Kashmir -- it is now a black hole, writes Graham Usher from the devastated city
On Saturday 8 May -- at 8.53am -- the South Asian earthquake erupted in the Kashmir valley, a mountainous province long divided and still disputed between Pakistan and India. The tremor rippled south, becoming a vast, earthen wave that fractured mountains, sheared down hillsides and buried thousands upon thousands of people.
In less than a minute, it reached Muzaffarabad, the "capital" of Pakistani Kashmir and home to 600,000 people. Muzaffarabad nestles on the banks of the Neelum River. The water is usually glacier blue. Today it is an angry red, swelled by mud and the blood of dead animals.
The earthquake tore through the city, leaving only a shell. A few buildings still stand, but most are a ruin of fallen masonry, collapsed corrugated roofs and ruptured roads. People pick gingerly through the detritus, as though wary that one false move will bring down the remains of their lives.
"The problem now is not the dead -- it's the living," says Sadir Butt, one of the 27,000 refugees in Muzaffarabad who fled Indian Kashmir during one of the three Pakistan-India wars fought over the province. "Our children have the earth and the sky -- and nothing in between".
Mohamed Abbasi would disagree. He was in Manchester, England, when he heard about the earthquake. He flew home and risked a night drive across deadly mountainous passes to reach Muzaffarabad. "It was the worst 24 hours of my life. I was crying on the plane, crying on the road up," he says.
He found his home, shaken but intact, and also his family, squatting in two tents on adjacent grassland: his mother, father, three brothers and sister. "I can't describe what I felt when I saw them, not even in my own language. My mother... just swallowed me up."
She was teaching at her school in a village when the earthquake struck. "I'd just gone out to pick up the keys from the caretaker. There was a roar and a crash. It was like the Day of Judgement. I turned around and the school was gone -- it was just gone. There were 300 children inside. I don't know how many survived. I didn't wait to help them. I ran to my family".
Mohamed's younger brother, Anwar, was watching TV, with his sister. He felt the house shudder and watched as the roof rent like a curtain. He grabbed his two younger brothers. "I threw them out on the balcony", he says. His father, Jamil, was in his office in the Muslim Commercial Bank. Of the city's six banks, it was the only one left standing. "What can I say? We were lucky".
But no family can be completely untouched in a disaster of this scale, not even the "lucky" Abbasis. Mohamed's uncle, Sherif, a 44-year-old geography teacher, was crushed to death in his school. Nor has Mohamed had any contact with his kin in their ancestral village of Dachahooruera, 70 kilometres from Muzaffarabad. "I don't know if they're alive or dead," he says.
Mohamed's house rests on a ledge above the valley. Despite the devastation, it is still breathtakingly beautiful, surrounded by verdant forest and sheltered by a cradle of Himalayan Mountains. But the drive to the centre of town is like a descent into hell.
The roads are a crush of cars and dazed, homeless refugees. Old men carry sacks of belongings on their backs. Women slosh out tents, preparing the Ramadan Iftar waiting for the next rainfall. Children run after multi-coloured trucks, tossing out cartons of milk, biscuits and bottled water to a scrum of ravenous people.
Thousands are leaving the city, jamming the road to Islamabad. Thousands more are pouring in, like 29-year-old Ijaz. He spent two days trekking down the mountain to Muzaffarabad from his village, Sarian. Two-hundred-and-seventy people were killed there but there are nine with spinal injuries "who can be saved", he says. All he needs is one doctor and one helicopter. But he is getting nowhere. What will he do? "I'll walk back with whatever medical supplies I can carry," he says.
We weave through the city on the back of Mohamed's 250 cc motorbike ("It's not mine. I found it on the street. That's how you survive here. You find things on the street"). He points out places that were landmarks. "That was the main military hospital," he says, nodding towards a row of barracks that have tipped, like a snow drift, into the river. "At least 200 officers perished there". He nods again towards a flattened wreck of bricks, windows and mortar, with a floor overhanging a roof. "That was the university. There are 300 bodies still trapped there".
After a while I lose the body count as well as the names of the places. But I doubt Mohamed is exaggerating. The dark crater that was once the heart of Muzaffarabad is consumed with the acrid smell of death. Everyone wears -- or tries to wear -- surgical facemasks. Some cram tissues into their mouths, in a futile attempt to ward off disease. It adds a sense of muffled silence --as though one of the punishments of hell is that you cannot speak. Emotion is left to eyes, darting frantically back and forth above gagged mouths.
We finally reach our destination, the Boys Degree Islamabad College, where Mohamed's uncle was killed. At first glance it seems one of the less damaged buildings: a few fissures that run like a web through a thick three-story building. But then you descend the steps and are confronted with an avalanche of stone. It was once the school's assembly hall. There is a single corpse covered in a white shroud.
"There were 500 students at assembly when the earthquake happened," says Mohamed Iqbal, the school caretaker. "Four hundred are still under the rubble. One hundred bodies have been pulled out since Sunday. Fifteen were alive."
The shroud belongs to Muzamid Abdul-Latif, 17 years old. Beside him is his 60-year-old father. He lifts the cover to reveal a thin grey arm, and then smoothes it back in place. Abdul-Latif registers no emotion other than a dull stoicism that has looked calamity in the eye and will not yet look away.
"The army came first on Sunday but brought the wrong equipment. Until Tuesday I could hear my son inside the rubble. 'Dad,' he said. 'I'm alive. Pull me out. Why don't you pull me out?' But I couldn't pull him out -- not until today'".
"What will become of my city?" asks a young boy with matted black hair, as we watch yet another white shroud being loaded onto yet another wicker stretcher. I shrug my shoulders.
The very conservative estimate is that at least 11,000 people were killed by the earthquake in Muzaffarabad, with 40,000 wounded. In the region as a whole at least two million people need immediate shelter, says the UN. There is an impressive relief effort: one hundred international organisations are in the city, backed by hundreds more local ones. But given the scale of the injury their labours seem minuscule and perhaps hopeless. I toss the question back to the boy. He too shrugs his shoulders.
Then there is the fact that this is also Kashmir -- site of the one of longest, most dangerous conflicts on the planet, with an insurgency raging on the Indian side that has claimed perhaps 50,000 lives in the last 16 years. There are some who believe the earthquake will force India and Pakistan to resolve the conflict once and for all, especially if they are to generate the estimated $5 billion in cash that will be required for Kashmir's reconstruction. "No one is going to help reconstruct the past," says veteran Pakistani writer, Ahmed Rashid.
For Mohamed too this is not the city he left when he went to England in 2004 as an 18-year- old student. He has already shipped off his sister and two youngest brothers to relatives in Islamabad. He is trying to persuade his parents to do likewise.
"They don't want to go. They have invested their entire lives here. I've promised them we will build our house again with our bare hands if we have to but not yet. You cannot live in debris. You cannot breathe disease".
Mohamed will return to Manchester in a month or so to complete his studies. He has no idea when or if he will come back.
"When I was asked about my home, I would say 'it's a city of light'. Really, from the mountains it looked like a chandelier, with the lamps from the houses and those crazy neon lights we have on our buses. That's what hit me when I returned, even before the fear for my family. It was so dark. Where is the light, I thought, where is the light?"