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Death ruled the beautiful mountains

Last updated on: October 17, 2005 10:42 IST

I cannot forget October 8 for the rest of my life.

It was 8.45 in the morning when I received a telephone call from the writer Ajeet Cour in Delhi. She was organising a conference of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation writers the next day and wanted to know why Pakistan Cultural Minister Muhammad Ali Durrani had declined to attend the conference.

I told her bluntly that the Pakistan Foreign Office had stopped him from doing so. 

Cour was angry and asked, "Why did Durrani give us a commitment in writing?"

I had no answer. I told her, "Things are not normal between the governments, and India and Pakistan are playing games with each other." 

"You are not part of the government," Cour said, "you have got an Indian visa. I will receive you in Delhi this evening."

I said yes meekly and informed her that I was just leaving for Lahore to catch the flight to Delhi.

I put down the phone, picked up the newspapers, when suddenly I heard the birds weep. I asked my son Arafat what had happened, but he was busy reading the report about Inzamam-ul Haq on the sports page of The News.

It was 8.52 when everything in my house started shaking. The great earthquake was in full swing. I grabbed my son, called out to my wife and daughter and asked them to run out of the house.

Within seconds, we were standing outside our home.

There was panic everywhere. Many people with children in their arms were crying on the streets. 

The earthquake continued for more than two minutes. The two minutes felt like two centuries.

Everyone on the streets of Islamabad was pleading, Ya Allah muafi (Oh God, please forgive us).

When the tremors stopped, I rushed inside my house to collect my mobile phone. I was sure that something very bad had happened.

I noticed some cracks in our building, but ignored them because my family was safe.

I immediately called my office, GEO TV, in Islamabad.

Hassan Nasir at the desk told me that the entire building had been evacuated. I asked him to leave the building immediately.

Within seconds, another colleague, Ashraf, called and told me that the 11-storey Margalla Towers in Islamabad had collapsed.

It was a great shock because many friends lived in the building.

We broke the story on GEO TV within minutes about the collapse of Margalla Towers.

More than 117 buildings in Islamabad developed cracks, and more than 50 people died in the Margalla Towers tragedy. 

At 11.30 Information Minister Sheikh Rashid issued a statement, saying, 'Don't worry, everything is normal. The earthquake created only a little destruction in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. The rest of the country is safe.'

He was wrong.

I received a call from Murree at 11:50. The caller revealed that the whole of Kashmir was destroyed, from Muzaffarabad to Rawlakot.

Another caller said Balakot in the North West Frontier Province no longer existed.

For the rest of the day, I received stories of death and destruction from Kashmir and the Hazara division.

The government in Islamabad was focused only on Margalla Towers.

President Pervez Musharraf arrived at Margalla Towers with Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz in the afternoon. Many government and Opposition leaders had gathered at Margalla Towers. We have lot of leaders without leadership qualities and that is why we were without any crisis management on October 8.

When the national media gathered around Margalla Towers, we decided to rush to Kashmir and Balakot. 

I sent one team to Balakot and another to Muzaffarabad.

Late at night, I discovered that the road from Kohala to Muzaffarabad was blocked near the Jhelum river because of  landslides. Our team was unable to reach Muzaffarabad.

I was sure that thousands of people had lost their lives, but the government sources were very careful. They estimated the death toll to be not more than 1,000 on the night of October 8.

I did not sleep the entire night. My telephone kept ringing.

Early on October 9, someone called to say that more than 10,000 people had died in the Bagh district in Kashmir. I was stunned. 

I rushed to Bagh. Within two hours, I was at Kohala Bridge.

When I traveled from Kohala to Dheerkot, I noticed that death ruled the beautiful mountains.

Hundreds of dead bodies lay on the roads. The tears in the eyes of men had dried. They were struggling to arrange kaffans (coffins) and qabar (graves) for their relatives.

I stopped at Manasa village. Fifteen boys in a school building had died. People were digging graves for them.

Chamankot was my next stop. The entire village was destroyed. Many injured people were trying to save dozens of dead bodies from the vultures and crows. I heard cries and complaints everywhere.

I was stopped by some angry people near Arja. They asked, "Mirsahib, where is the government? Twenty four hours have passed, but we have not seen anyone from the Kashmir government in our area." 

These people were not aware that the state government had collapsed and was destroyed in the earthquake.

More than 2,000 government officials died in the state capital, Muzaffarabad. 

Bagh was completely destroyed. I had visited this beautiful city a few years ago. 

I noticed a man laughing on a bridge. I heard him say, "The police died in the thana (police station) and the qaidis (the prisoners) died in the jailkhana (prison). Hum sab azaad ho gaye (we are all free)." He was a schoolteacher who had lost his senses because more than 300 students and teachers at the Springfield School in Bagh died in the earthquake. He was one of the few survivors. 

In the next few hours, I visited the debris of the Government Degree College for Boys. About 1,500 boys were buried in the rubble. There was no machinery to remove the debris. I visited the Government College for Girls. More than 400 girls had died there. The books, bags and shoes of the students were everywhere. Many mothers were crying at the debris of the Boys High School. I saw a lot of unattended dead bodies there. The locals told me that the parents of the dead children were also dead.

"We are waiting for their relatives to come and bury them. We don't have the time to bury them because we are trying to save the lives of those who are asking for help from the debris," they said. I listened to the voices from the debris. "Ammiji, Abbuji tussi kithey hu? (Mother, father where are you?)." One father started crying when he recognised his son's voice. There was no equipment to cut through the concrete slabs, so how could he save his son? That was the dilemma of most  parents there. 

Many people said when the earthquake struck, they thought India had attacked Pakistan with nuclear missiles and that is why the earth was shaking. Why did they think so? Because Bagh is very close to the Line of Control and is a target for shelling in tense times.

I told the local people that the Indian government was sending relief for them, instead of bombs. They nodded positively, their smiles taken away by the horrific tragedy of the earthquake.

There is no doubt that the government moved very slowly in the first 36 hours.

The road from Kohala to Muzaffarabad was cleared only on Sunday evening when I was on my way back from Bagh. The state machinery was destroyed completely and the army suffered heavy losses.

The Pakistan Army's 12th Division in Muzaffarabad and the 19th Division in Bagh lost 450 soldiers; more than 1,000 soldiers were injured.

The army took 48 hours to recover and started relief operations only after that. 

I have visited Muzaffarabad many times since October 8.

The city was without any administration and police for an entire week. The road to the Neelam valley is still blocked. We do not know what happened to the areas which are not accessible to us.

The locals say more than 80,000 people have died in Kashmir.

Unfortunately, the armies of Pakistan and India are still busy scoring points. Some Indian Army officers claimed they crossed the LoC and helped Pakistan troops after the earthquake, but the Pakistan army spokesman alleged, 'It's a concocted and baseless story.'

How unlucky we are.

We need to help each other in this crisis, but our army officers reveal war-time mentality. That is the reason why Musharraf refused to accept help from the Indian Army. Musharraf had no problem accepting help from Israel even though Pakistan has no diplomatic relations with Jerusalem.

Pakistan is getting help from countries, which are thousands of miles away from our borders, but why can't our neighbour send us helicopters for help?

If we cannot accept help from India during a natural disaster, then we cannot have genuine friendship even during normal times.

The people of India and Pakistan must think about what is wrong with this situation.

In reality, we are still enemies, not friends.

That is the lesson I have learnt from October 8.

Peace activists like Ajeet Cour have a long way to go before achieving real friendship. 

The international community is ready to help the at least two million victims of the October 8 earthquake. We only lack planning.

I met President Musharraf on Saturday, a week after the earthquake. He was determined to convert the disaster into a gain. He said the Pakistan army's Engineers Corp would play a key role in the rehabilitation of victims with the help of the United Nations and former US president Bill Clinton.

He was aware that thousands of people are moving from all over Pakistan to Kashmir and Hazara with trucks loaded with food and warm clothing, but didn't know how and where to distribute these things. The government has established a Federal Relief Commission to channelise aid.

I met Kashmir Prime Minister Sardar Sikandar Hayat Khan in his tent on the lawns of the totally destroyed PM House in Muzaffarabad. He was passing on instructions to his ministers on a wireless set and writing orders on files.

"Today I am the prime minister of a graveyard, but I will turn this graveyard into a city full of life very soon," he declared.

Electricity and communication in Muzaffarabad have been restored one week after the disaster. Hayat hoped that the smiles on his people's faces will return within months.

There is no doubt that human beings can overcome the losses through high spirits and an iron nerve. They can convert the losses into gain if they are united, committed and work hard.

Hamid Mir in Islamabad