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February 6, 2001

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The Rediff Special/ Josy Joseph

Journey to the epicentre

Once you pass the deserted debris that was Bhuj, you need to turn towards Nagor and drive down the lonely road that has withstood the killer quake. It is an isolated stretch, but it passes up and down through beautiful hillocks as it heads towards the India-Pakistan border.

After driving for about 28 kilometres -- at least, according to the government's distance marker -- a small mountain stretch raises its head to your left. To your right is yet another heap of debris. It was once a cluster of houses that formed the village of Lodai. Once a prosperous village of over 600 houses -- several of its youth are employed in the Gulf -- Lodai was just a few kilometres away from the epicentre of the Republic Day earthquake.

"We have been getting a lot of relief material, mostly food items and clothes, ever since the television news showed our village," says Lodai's sarpanch, Lakshman Bana Patel. "What we desperately need, though, are tents that will protect us from the bitter cold. But the government officials have yet not visited us and we cannot obviously ask private agencies for something they are not giving us."

We are sitting in the badly-damaged community hall; its courtyard is piled with sacks of wheat and other food items. None of the villagers need much persuasion to recount their experience of the earthquake or to talk of the hot water spring that has appeared since then.

They recall how three blasts happened on three sides of the village as the quake began. "The first one was at the Ram temple, the second at Vervada, which is ahead of our village. The third one happened near Kengarpur, another four, five kilometers on to the right," says 18-year-old Razak. He was at the village farm where he works as a labourer when the quake happened. "I stood there in the open. All around me, houses were shaking wildly before they collapsed."

Patel, meanwhile, had left his home home at about 8.30 am for his regular walk around the village. "A few minutes later, when I was standing at the village junction, I heard a loud sound; like a bomb blast or something," he recalls. "I think the sound came from where the Ram temple stood. Then the gate at the village junction began to shake; I kept staring as it shook like a swing three times. I knew it was an earthquake; I had experienced a quake when I was a child."

Once the quake was over, Patel rushed home; thankfully, everyone in his family was safe. When he turned towards the village, he was shocked. It was in ruins and several people were buried under the debris. He organised the villagers and they began clearing the rubble as fast as they could. By noon on January 26, everyone who could be saved was saved. The toll in the village read: 27 dead and over 40 injured. Only a couple of concrete buildings had survived, but they too had deep cracks.

Razak returned home to find his grandmother and his nieces dead. "All around me," he says, "there were dead people." It was a scene that could devastate most human beings. But the grief was also collective and that, in a strange way, helped. "There were so many deaths that it was not just our grief," he says. "The entire village was mourning. Also, we survived, didnít we?"

The village, which is predominantly Hindu, also houses about 20 Muslims families. While the latter took their dead to the burial ground attached to the village mosque, Patel asked the Hindus to bring their dead to the main junction. From there, the bodies were taken in a procession to an open ground. "We gave them a mass funeral," he says.

As the news spread, the Lodai villagers who were away -- 60 of them are in the Gulf -- began to return. "Our companies got us our tickets and sent us," says a Gulf-returnee. The survivors -- both Hindus and Muslims -- are a perfect example of communal amity; they live in the same temporary camps, eat in the same kitchen and share the same tragedy.

Design: Dominic Xavier

The Complete Coverage | List of earthquake sites

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