Skip to main content

Beneath Us, the Ground Still Moves: Pakistan, April 2006


[clock] 39-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Summer 2006

 

A Muzaffarabad house destroyed in the earthquake overlooks the remains of a shattered cemetery (J. Malcolm Garcia).

In the hazy afternoon light I walk past row after row of tan Pakistan Army tents, taut and erect and aligned, past row after row of aluminum toilet stalls and water dispensers and parched ground. My translator, Tahir, shoos children away, stops them from clutching my hands, but they follow us anyway, churning dust around their sore-covered feet. Ahead of us older kids kick a soccer ball but don’t chase it, and we proceed toward them and they part in the still air, no breeze.

Openmouthed and squinting, men and women and more children peer out of their tents in silent confusion, puzzled by the commotion of my passing, and then they, too, follow us, revived by something new breaking through the humid monotony of the afternoon, so different suddenly from the arthritic stagnation of their waiting lives. Waiting for what? Certainly not for me, but for now I will do.

“Where you from?”

“Who are you?”

“What do you want?”

A man stops me and shows me a petition. “Help us,” he says.

Sir, Tahir says, reading it to me, we are earthquake victims of Azad Kashmir. Sir, we are staying at H-11 tent village in Islamabad. Sir, the government of Pakistan and Azad Kashmir tell us to go back. Sir, our houses and lands are totally destroyed in the earthquake. We don’t want to go there because we are afraid of living there. Sir, after 31 March the government stopped the work of relief in H-11 tent village Islamabad. Sir, that is why we are signing this petition to you of the United Nations for you to help us.

“I am not with the United Nations,” I say and hand back the petition.

The man stares at the worn creased paper and its uncertain signatures of people unaccustomed to writing. He watches me, mouth slowly going slack, eyes turned dull. He walks back to his tent where a woman and some children wait. Together they sit by the open flap and stare out at nothing, eyes immobile and unblinking, the sweat-dampened petition still in his hand.

“Who gives these people the darkness? They are not Muslim. They turned away from Islam,” Tahir says. “That’s why they are here.”

This is a constant refrain with Tahir, a moralizing drumbeat that gives me a headache: the people have turned from Allah to pursue lives of sin and for this they are being punished, just as some fundamentalist Christians claimed that Hurricane Katrina was the result of New Orleanians’ sinful lives.

“Bullshit,” I say.

“The Holy Quran says there is a beginning and an end. I think the earthquake was the start of the end of time.”

I continue through the dust and the desultory heat toward the administration tent, swat at flies. No breeze.


Mohammed Hadiz and his two grandchildren leave Camp Narul for an uncertain future in their earthquake-wrecked village outside Muzaffarabad (J. Malcolm Garcia).

*  *  *  *  

I had not visited Pakistan since the spring of 2004 when President Pervez Musharraf said in a CNN interview that a high-level al Qaeda leader was cornered in the tribal territories bordering Afghanistan. Possibly Mr. Big himself, Osama bin Laden. It turned out to be no one of significance, a local criminal at best, but not before I—and dozens of other journalists—descended on Pakistan and chased phantoms for weeks until, exhausted and discouraged and empty-handed, the other journalists and I abandoned our dreams of the story of the century and left for home and tamer fare.

When a 7.6-magnitude earthquake struck Pakistan and Kashmir a year and a half later, on October 8, 2005, I saw BBC news reports of the dust and the blood, broken homes and broken bones, landslides and buried villages, wailing mothers and dead children. I frantically e-mailed Yassin, my driver in Pakistan.

In the two months we had worked together, I found Yassin to be a soft-spoken man who adhered to the old school of the British Raj. His graying hair was slicked cleanly to one side, mustache clipped and dead even over his lip. He called me sir, opened the car door for me, carried my backpack, and refused to state a specific salary but accepted without counting it in my presence whatever I paid him. At first, I mistakenly called him Yeltsin, which drove him to distraction.

“My name is Yassin, sir,” he would remind me, the shell of his austere professionalism cracking with frustration.

By contrast, Yassin’s brother-in-law Tahir had liked to indulge in radical babble. He questioned the existence of Osama bin Laden—a figment of the American government, he asserted, to explain September 11, which was really the result of an Israeli conspiracy to pit Americans against Muslims.

“Just translate,” I would tell him.

He laughed, his long black hair bouncing about his shoulders. He was a smooth-faced, naïve young man living with his parents and didn’t know jack shit outside of the anti-American propaganda all around him. Yet, when I covered an anti-American protest following the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and was shoved to the ground and kicked and punched by angry demonstrators, it was Tahir who pulled me to safety.

Neither he nor Yassin was harmed in the quake. I stopped watching the BBC reports. Knowing they were safe put the catastrophe out of my mind. Although the earthquake was the strongest on record for Pakistan and left thousands of people dead, it created little buzz in the US. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina was little more than a month old and, unlike the headline sensation of the tsunami, no Americans had died in Pakistan.

But the earthquake was on par with the tsunami—both in terms of its human toll and its show of nature’s sheer power. It began as a wave undulating the ground but the convulsions quickly grew wilder, shaking walls, rooftops, and floors. Within seconds, mud-brick homes collapsed, larger buildings imploded, and landslides buried entire villages. The epicenter was just six miles south of Muzaffarabad—the river-valley capital of Pakistani Kashmir, known here as Azad Kashmir or “Free Kashmir”—and close enough to the surface to shake that city of three-quarters of a million people down to its foundations in seconds. Buildings rocked a hundred miles away in Islamabad and shook as far away as Kabul and New Delhi. In less than half a minute, more than 87,000 people were dead, of which at least 17,000 were in Pakistani Kashmir. Some believe the death toll may eventually top 100,000—roughly the size of an average college town. Imagine if Berkeley or Lawrence, Kansas, or Charlottesville, Virginia, just disappeared. Muzaffarabad and scores of other towns and villages didn’t quite vanish, but they looked as if they were trampled by a giant. And it wasn’t over. The first shock was followed by twenty-two aftershocks, including one magnitude 6.2 temblor.

Given the quake’s catastrophic impact, Pakistan’s role in the US-led war on terror, and the destabilizing effect thousands of displaced people could have on the government, Yassin expected more interest from me. He would call periodically asking why I hadn’t visited, why I wasn’t active on behalf of “poor Pakistan.”

“But you are okay,” I told him.

“Excuse me, sir,” he said. “This is not about Mr. Yassin. The people have no homes. We are afraid. Don’t forget us. Beneath us, the ground still moves.”

*  *  *  *  

The ground has moved for centuries. As the Indian subcontinent continues to creep about 1.6 inches farther north every year, mountains are still being formed in the Himalayan, Karakoram, Pamir, and Hindu Kush ranges by the uplift from the earth’s internal belching—and earthquakes are the inevitable consequence. It is recorded that a severe earthquake rocked Central Asia as far back as 962. In 1555 a quake in northern Pakistan is said to have created gaping holes in the ground that rerouted rivers and swallowed houses whole. In more recent time, the southern city of Quetta was awakened on May 31, 1935, by what many thought was thunder until the noise roared up from beneath their feet. People ran from their houses calling to various gods. At least 36,000 people perished. Next door, in the Indian Province of Gujarat on the morning of January 26, 2001, one of the deadliest earthquakes in Indian history struck, killing nearly 20,000 people.

The impact was similar to the legendary 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Back then the fragile wood buildings collapsed within seconds. The ground opened and closed. Buildings fell to ruins. Fires devastated the city, consuming nearly 29,000 buildings in a 4.7-square-mile area. Some 3,000 people died and thousands were left homeless. I was living in San Francisco eighty-three years later when, on October 17, 1989, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck the San Francisco Bay Area again just before the third game of the World Series at Candlestick Park. The tremor collapsed a section of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. Power was knocked out and the city was dark for the first time since 1906. The quake killed 62 people throughout central California, injured 3,757, and left more than 12,000 homeless. I was in my Mission District house when the floor started moving. I planted myself in a doorway as the floor continued to roll. I tipped left and right, then tilted more deeply as the house swayed and rattled. I knew that if the shaking did not stop soon the house would come crashing down on top of me.

*  *  *  *  

Camp administrator Mohammed Norin Qajia sits beneath a large burlap overhang waving a fistful of wilted flowers near his face. Around him silent men sort through papers without interest. No one moves except to push their turbans off their hot foreheads. I smell their perspiration, the stink of their heat-laden boredom.

Qajia raises his eyes at me, mildly surprised. He strokes his brown-stained, chest-length beard, considering me. He looks on my curious followers standing a few feet away and sighs.

“You are?”

“Journalist.”

“Why are you here?”

“I want to know about the relief effort.”

“The relief is over. We are into reconstruction. A few people have gone. Some have returned to their villages, others just moved on.”

He waves the flowers and lets out a long breath.

“Tea?”

“No, thank you.”

He watches a boy try to fly a paper kite. It falls and rips on the stony ground.

“The rest stay,” Qajia says, the worn flowers drooping in his hand. “They will all go back one day whether they want to or not. I just don’t know when.”


Akthar Jaan loads his family’s possessions into a Jeep in Camp Narul while his brother Aadil looks on (J. Malcolm Garcia).

*  *  *  *  

In February, when Yassin’s appeals finally convinced me to prepare a trip to Islamabad, the Pakistani government announced that all of the 170 earthquake-relief camps sheltering some 200,000 people would be closed on March 31. The government and aid officials declared that emergency assistance was finished. It was time for displaced families to rebuild their villages. But privately government officials concede it will take at least three years to construct 600,000 new housing units and restore 6,000 schools, 400 hospitals, and dozens of government buildings.

International aid has also fallen short. The United Nations has received about $352 million in quake aid instead of the urgently requested $550 million. The lack of funds has forced the UN to reduce and sometimes ground flights to remote villages that need emergency food supplies. After a hesitant start the Pakistani military and outside relief organizations coordinated their efforts to clear roads and airlift tons of blankets and tents to stranded survivors. Unusually warm winter temperatures eased the suffering of the nearly 400,000 people that the UN estimated were living in the mountains.

Shortly after the earthquake the government promised affected families a one-time payment of 25,000 rupees ($417) to meet basic needs. Now these same families should receive another one-time payment of 75,000 rupees ($1,250) as well as up to 175,000 rupees ($2,917) to repair or rebuild their houses. Families with at least three children under eighteen will be eligible for an additional cash grant of 3,000 rupees ($50) per month for six months, according to Pakistani Army general Nadeem Ahmed, deputy chairman of the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority.

“We encourage the people to return and do some work in their villages and rehabilitate themselves,” Ahmed said. “We have categorically insisted that this be voluntary.”


One of the few remaining relief camps on the Jhelum River outside Muzaffarabad (J. Malcolm Garcia).

Officials with aid organizations, however, say that families in relief camps have received much less assistance than promised. Just a tent, some food, and a free lift home. No cash. And they question the “voluntary” nature of their departure from the camps.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has cited evidence of intense psychological pressure being applied to move people out whether they have a village to return to or not. Some camp managers, the UNHCR found, have been telling families to leave on a specific date and that this would be the only time free transportation would be available to them.

“There was an element, a push factor, being exercised by people eager to see the camps empty earlier,” admits Jan Vandemoortele, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Islamabad. “We have contacted locals and gone to these areas and clarified the situation.”

*  *  *  *  

Yassin waits for us in the car, protecting it from thieves. He trims his mustache. Tahir stoops to pick up a coin.

“Fifty rupees the girl asked for but I find,” he says, pocketing it.

“Lucky you.”

“You don’t approve, sir?”

“It’s less than a dollar, man. What does it mean to you? Give it to the girl.”

“Allah says worship Me. They do not and the earth swallowed them and they suffer. That is what I think.”

*  *  *  *  

A man gestures to us from his tent. He pulls the flap back and I duck my head and enter the cramped quarters and sit on a straw mat between a stack of malodorous blankets and dirty pots, pans, and plastic tubs. The people who have been following me crowd inside. Others remain outside, sealing the open flap with their bodies. The hot stifling air fills my lungs with cotton.

The man hands me a cup of tea and a plate of chicken. I put the tin plate by my feet to draw away the flies, and sip the tepid tea. Outside the tent, I see the elongated shadows of bearded men lurking, wondering who we are and what we are doing. Everyone around me talks at once.

“The earth shook as much as it was possible for it to shake. I have lost everything.”

“I saw buildings fall, people crushed.”

“I thought India had attacked us.”

“The earth made dreadful noises like gloom, gloom, gloom.

“I have been here sixth months.”

“Four months.”

“Five.”

“How long can we stay here?”

I raise my hands, Stop. But they keep shouting above one another for my attention and I turn away from their distorted faces so close to mine that the stench of their frustration clouds my mind. A girl opens the back of the tent and the rest quiet down as if their breath had been drawn out with the hot air. A baby with a swollen bug bite on the back of her leg makes the only noise, wailing in discomfort. Her mother, a woman in her midtwenties, Shahkeel Ahmad, holds her, rocking back and forth. The straw mat crackles beneath her legs.

“Our homes are lost in Kashmir,” Shahkeel says. “Five children died here in this camp in the winter. The government says it will provide everything but you see nothing. Now we face summer. What will the results be from the heat?”

She stares at me, a white veil slipping back from her face. I shake my head.

“I don’t know.”

“I was asleep. It was very difficult. The house was falling all around me. It was like a blast. The earth made dreadful noises. We have been here six months. We don’t have a home anywhere. How long can we stay?”

“I don’t know.”

“No one does. We are alone. All around us are people like you—people we don’t know who know nothing.”

*  *  *  *  

Women throw water on the makeshift clinic’s brick floor to wash away the dust, but the water turns it into muddy pools. Behind a counter men stand by shelves stuffed with bottles and sacks of pills. Physician Bababar Bilal examines Shahkeel’s baby, squeezing the bite gently with his fingers. He gives Shahkeel some ointment. She leaves, head bowed, not even a backward glance in my direction.

“I see a lot of that, bug bites,” Dr. Bilal says, wiping his hands on a washcloth. “Mostly I see acute diarrhea. With blood, without blood. Water is the problem. Old adults and babies. I see forty to fifty people a day, twenty-five to thirty with diarrhea. We also see chicken pox, measles, acute respiratory problems due to overcrowding.”

He introduces me to Mohammed Younis, a man in his fifties, stretched on a cot with an intravenous drip in his arm. The blazingly white walls reflect the bare light bulbs illuminating the hall. Flies dart back and forth. Mohammed squints at us, twenty-five empty beds neatly made all around him. Acute diarrhea. He has been in the camp four months. A Kashmiri. Everything gone.

Dr. Bilal was examining a patient like him in his Muzaffarabad clinic when the patient said, “Doctor, it’s an earthquake,” and then the roof collapsed on the man and he died where he lay. Dr. Bilal tried to reach the door but was thrown backward into his chair and buried in debris. He remained conscious. His only thoughts were, Get me out. Someone needs to find me.

He called from beneath the broken cinder blocks covering his body, and his co-workers dragged him free. That night his feet hurt but nothing more. Yes, yes, people tell him he talks very fast now, but nothing is wrong. His nerves are fine. He just has a lot on his mind, a lot to do.

“They say rehabilitation and all that stuff comes now. I’ll decide what to do when I see what happens. My house still stands but it is not habitable so I came here to work.”

On a piece of paper he scribbles an address as fast as he talks and thrusts it at me.

“Here, here, here. My house in Muzaffarabad. Go. See for yourself what happened there.”

Dr. Bilal looks at Mohammed. Mohammed stares at the ceiling. We return to the front office. Even with us out of the room, Mohammed doesn’t stir, alive but vacant. Only the needle in his arm connects him here.

“I’m not hopeful,” Dr. Bilal says. “Ninety percent of the people I see in the camp are not educated. Shopkeepers, that is all. I don’t see what they are going to do.”

*  *  *  *  

Yassin drives me to the ten-story Margalla Towers in Islamabad, a posh apartment complex for the well-to-do that was destroyed in the earthquake. I stare up at the collapsed rooms. Exterior stairways hang off the walls like broken jaws. Jagged hills of concrete lie in piles. Stray dogs pick their way through the mountainous rubble. Shredded bits of clothing cling to crushed cars.

“Sir,” Yassin says, “afterward we had too much little shaking.”

“Aftershocks, you mean.”

“Yes. Everyone was afraid. No one wanted to be inside. I see rich people sleeping on the ground. No AC, no fans. Just themselves.”

I nod. I show Yassin the slip of paper from Dr. Bilal.

“How far is Muzaffarabad?”

“Three- , four-hour drive.”

“Can you take us tomorrow?”

“No problem, sir. Why not?”

I fold the paper and stuff it back into my pocket. Traffic races by us just feet away but it sounds distant. Cars honk, trucks spew black clouds of diesel exhaust. Vendors push jangling ice-cream carts and wagons filled with chintzy tourist knickknacks, and I hear the day’s cricket scores announced on a radio somewhere nearby yet far from the tomb-ish quiet sheathing me in the ruins of the Margalla Towers.

“Sir?”

“Yes?”

“It is okay. Not so many died here.”

He points to a shattered first-floor apartment; there, standing yet, is a cracked table that holds a teacup and teaspoon on a saucer and a small pitcher for cream.

“It was morning-time. I was in the bed. That night my family and I also slept outside. The earthquake made us all equals.”

*  *  *  *  

Days after the San Francisco earthquake, I would wake in the middle of the night and jump out from under the sheets and stand in a doorway braced against what I thought was another shock wave. This happened night after night until eventually I realized that my knees were knocking together, shaking the bed while I slept, that when I felt the bed move, I was the one quaking.

At the guesthouse in Islamabad, I put a pillow between my knees and try to sleep with this lonely memory of my fears.

*  *  *  *  

A gray, drizzly morning, low skies. Driving to Muzaffarabad four hours north. We climb steep, looping roads through densely green, tree-covered mountains, past closed shops and restaurants. We stop for water served in oilcans at roadside stalls, sit on crates stuffed with live chickens for market, and wrap ourselves in shawls against the cold and rain. I listen to water spill out of gutters and, using my fingers, eat beef kebab and rice. The rain forges trenches in the hills around us, pouring onto the road where boulders from landslides create an obstacle course for traffic.

We reach Muzaffarabad by late afternoon. The twisting streets, gouged with potholes, bustle with donkey-drawn carts stacked with firewood, jockeying for position next to a jam-up of cars and garishly decorated buses. Water buffalo and goats herded by boys with sticks saunter along the side of the road. Men converse, squatting flat-footed at the side of the road. I hear hammers pounding steel. It looks to me that Muzaffarabad has recovered from the quake.

Then I see the tents, hundreds of them, lining the hills, amid the rubble where houses once stood, on the rooftops of shops—a combination of squatters’ huts and organized, government-financed shelters. Road crews with pickaxes, shovels, and wheelbarrows are still clearing the streets. Flapping in the air above them, the flags of dozens of nongovernmental aid organizations.

We stop by the World Food Programme to arrange a ride on a relief flight but, no, the government has grounded the WFP until further notice.

“They say relief is over. We have all this food but can’t get off the ground,” Abdul Qadir, a flight coordinator, tells us.

At Mercy Corps, an American aid agency, engineer Saqib Awan tells us the same thing. He also mentions a Muzaffarabad relief camp where, he says, families have been told to leave.

“The chief of police told everyone they must go from there.”

“Don’t rely on rumor,” his director tells him.

“This is happening,” Saqib insists.

He walks us to the door.

“It is called Camp Narul.”

*  *  *  *  

Towards evening I sit in a restaurant drinking tea with Hagi Javed-ul-Hassan. He explains that he is in charge of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa relief camps in Muzaffarabad and gives me his business card. Jamaat-ud-Dawa epitomizes the complexities of Kashmir. The group took the lead in earthquake aid efforts, operating clinics and seventeen camps, even working alongside US soldiers in October, but on April 28 (while I was in the country) the State Department announced that it was freezing the US assets of Jamaat-ud-Dawa and its sister organization, Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq, on the grounds that both groups merely served as fronts for Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, a Kashmiri organization of Islamist terrorists opposing the Indian government. According to the State Department, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba simply changed its named to Jamaat-ud-Dawa in 2001 after Lashkar was targeted by the UN for its ties to al Qaeda and created IKK “as a public welfare organization that it utilizes to collect funds and undertake other activities.” Some of its actions do indeed seem dubious, such as taking donations over its website for the purchase of livestock to sacrifice in prayers for earthquake victims—donations that must be wired directly to Jamaat-ud-Dawa bank accounts in Lahore. But no one questions that they have helped UNICEF, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, World Food Programme, and the World Health Organization. The question is their motive. Jamaat-ud-Dawa says they are helping earthquake victims ignored by the West because they are Muslims. The US State Department says that Jamaat-ud-Dawa is recruiting.

“We welcome you, we share in relief work together,” Hagi says, smiling. “The American soldier without a gun is very sweet. The government and religious organizations cannot face alone this destruction. It’s a good opportunity to normalize relations between ideologies and communities. What do you think?”

I had heard a similar sentiment that morning in our hotel when a bearded young man who claimed to be a Taliban fighter and a member of Jamaat-ud-Dawa pulled Tahir aside and asked to speak to me. Later, in his room, he offered to share his breakfast of fried eggs and toast and told me his name was Hamza. He had been fighting in Indian-controlled Kashmir; a battered Kalashnikov rifle stood in one corner. He pointed out the window at a truckload of squatting shawl-cloaked men.

“Mujahideen,” he said. “Freedom fighters.”

“Coming from the Indian side?”

“Yes.”

He appraised me from head to foot and then asked to snap my picture with his cell phone.

“Don’t worry, American,” he said, focusing his shot. “I won’t kill you.”

He laughed at my startled expression.

“You see,” Hamza said, “I know you are here to help.”

But to help with what? To raise awareness for earthquake victims, or to give good press to Jamaat-ud-Dawa? For people here who believe that the earthquake signaled the beginning of the end of time, Jamaat-ud-Dawa becomes attractive as a chance to practice as “pure” a form of Islam as the Taliban had in Afghanistan—a last-ditch effort to purge themselves of their sins. Of course, if the world does not end—as, thankfully, it hasn’t yet—Jamaat-ud-Dawa still increases its membership, its political clout, and the reach of its militant philosophy and anti-Western rhetoric, through guys like Hamza.

For tonight, it doesn’t matter. I’m grateful for this temporary halt in hostilities. In the damp restaurant I smile at Hagi Javed-ul-Hassan and warm myself with tea. He smiles too then says, “United States aggression is another thing from the relief effort. Relief work cannot remove the real evil of American foreign policy. This we will always resist. More tea?”

*  *  *  *  

The announcer’s box above the ruins of a mossy, weed-filled soccer stadium serves as the administrative office of Camp Narul, known officially as Camp Management Organization. Empty for years, it was being rebuilt when the earthquakes struck. Now, cracked and broken from neglect and the massive temblor, it will probably never be repaired.

Rain has turned the camp into a swamp. Tahir and I slog through ankle-deep mud around dozens of tents toward the announcer’s box. Tahir wipes his new brown loafers with every step. People emerge from their tents, walking on their toes in the mud, and call to us pleading for information.

Tahir and I walk up a broken stairwell on the back side of the stadium. Blankets and sheets and boxes of food fill spaces in walls left vacant by fallen cinder blocks. At the top of the stairwell is the door to the announcer’s box. I open it. Men crowd around the one desk in the otherwise empty room, all of them shouting on cell phones. They need supplies. They need a truck. They need someone who’s not in the building. But they haven’t forgotten their manners. When we enter, they offer us chairs, and an elderly man scurries into the hall to make tea.

“This camp will not close by force,” says the budget manager, Fazal Urrehman, speaking above the mad ringing of his cell phone. “People go voluntarily. If only one family stays, this camp will remain open.”

Every one of the 14,673 families still in the camp will be helped, he assures me, but they must remain flexible. He points out the window to a mountain dotted with tents, many between undamaged homes.

“Most of the land where people have tents belongs to someone else. There is a conflict with people returning to their property and people camped on their property. This land does not belong to the government. So we may move this camp to another tent village on government land.”

He shows me a press release announcing national cricket and soccer games: national entertainment to reduce the trauma of the earthquake. He laughs.

“There is no trauma among these people. The trauma is here among us working in these facilities for the last six months with people unwilling to leave here.”

*  *  *  *  

Tahir and I walk outside into an upheaval of activity. Jeeps jounce up the rocky roads snaking through the camp, spraying jets of brown water from deep puddles. The drivers park beside tents where families have already stacked their belongings under the searing blaze of the sun: blankets, pots, pans . . .

Everyone is shouting.

A camp manager speaks into a microphone: “The government of Pakistan is helping you move back. We provide only transportation. Everything you want to keep, you can keep. The government will provide you with farm equipment.”

… a door, a bed, bags of flour, boxes filled to bursting, sheets wrapped around more pots and pans . . .

“What are we to do now?” asks a man.

“The government will tell you, not me,” says the camp manager. “If you don’t want to go back to your village, see who is in charge of your section of the camp and they will tell you your options.”

… chairs, tents, trunks, tin plates, tubs, shoes, firewood …

“They said I must go.”

“Then you go. Don’t give money to the police to let you live here.”

… tarps, stacks of bread wrapped in scarves …

They shout and shove and throw things into the jeep.

“We’ve established tent villages for the disabled and those who don’t want to go,” the camp official assures the crowd through the microphone. “But you have to leave this place. The government will give you money.”

The jeeps pull away carrying families squeezed into spaces found somewhere in the crevices of the chaos of their packing. Behind them, barren plots of withered ground where their tents once stood. Strewn scraps of clothing, a red shirt, a black shoe, torn scarves, bricks, nothing worth picking through by those who remain staring after the jeeps, gone now but for the fading sound of strained engines passing through the trees; gone, too, the noise and commotion here just seconds ago, leaving behind the gaping hole of sudden departure; gone just as those here now staring down the road where not even the echo of the engines rises anymore will soon be gone, their lives at a moment’s notice a sudden whirlwind of activity and flight followed by all this empty silence and still others left behind them staring and alone. This is the transition from aid to rebuilding.

*  *  *  *  


An earthquake-induced landslide destroyed houses and parts of the road in the town of Chenari outside Muzaffarabad on the way to Punein Village (J. Malcolm Garcia).

We follow the convoy out of the camp but lose them temporarily when the road is blocked with a demonstration by Jamaat-ud-Dawa. It takes us an hour to maneuver through the congestion of the crowd and continue out of Muzaffarabad, trailing the convoy toward the village of Punein. We stop at a roadside stall for water. A bridge spans the churning waters of the Jhelum River and I walk over it to five fresh graves decorated with ribbons. A barefoot man, Mohammed Nazir, sweeps the graves and adjusts vases of plastic flowers.

“Earthquake?”

Mohammed nods, points.

“Here is my brother, daughter, wife, mother, father.”

Mohammed tells me he has received only 25,000 rupees from the government—enough to bury his family, buy food, but not enough to rebuild his house. He sleeps under the sky.

He continues sweeping and starts to weep. He puts aside the fistful of twigs he uses as a broom and holds my hands, crying silently, head bowed. Unable to think of anything adequate, I say nothing.


Mohammed Nazir sweeps the graves of his wife, brother, daughter, mother, and father killed in the earthquake in Kundh Bandi Village near Muzaffarabad (J. Malcolm Garcia).

“I was in Muzaffarabad at the time of the earthquake. I walked here five hours. All the roads were blocked by landslides. I find the way myself. I was scared about my house and family. I just wanted to see one person who could give me news of my family. When I did, they told me they were dead.”

The Jhelum boils past us in its rush downstream toward Muzaffarabad where it courses through the city center, a torrent of mud and froth roiling beneath the bridge. A strand of ribbon blows away from one of the graves. The wind carries it over rippling rice fields and the channels of cold clear water flowing through them.

“I always pray for them now,” Mohammed says still holding my hands. “I am waiting for my family to come back to me. It would be a sign of love if they come back. What do you think?”

*  *  *  *  

We shadow the Jhelum through dense green fields and tree-lined mountains and an immense blue sky, the air refreshingly cool, and I am lulled almost to sleep except for the memory of the grieving man which pricks me awake each time my eyes close. Then Yassin stops the car.

“What’s wrong?”

“Look,” he says.

Giant boulders from a recent landslide block the road. Construction crews remove the smaller rocks by hand and in wheelbarrows. Around us people move onto a steep narrow trail that leads from the road and into the mountains and around the landslide to the other side. They carry trunks heaved onto their shoulders, fat bundles of clothing slung over their backs. Small children and adults commuting on foot. A pedestrian thoroughfare into the woods. Some jeeps I saw earlier in Camp Narul turn around and return to Muzaffarabad.

“No more than a thirty-minute walk,” a policeman tells Tahir.

Yassin lights a cigarette.

“I’ll stay here and watch the car, sir.”

He drops the back of his seat and closes his eyes.

“I will pray for your safe return,” he says.

Within minutes of climbing, I am out of breath. My legs ache and my heart pounds through my rib cage. None of the people ahead or behind me burdened with their possessions seem fatigued.

“They are mountain people,” Tahir gasps. “Be strong, sir.”

The fresh air and exercise inspires Tahir to philosophical musings after we bump past several men with long black beards.

“You see them? These men with beards are jihadists. They hate America. They don’t like your President Bush. But if one person is corrupt does not mean the whole country is corrupt? People don’t know how to see the difference. What do you think?”

An informal traffic pattern exists. Outbound travelers use the trail below us while my trail serves incoming hikers. Men stand on steep inclines and hold out their hands to help us maintain our balance and not give in to the pull of gravity. In return we tip them twenty-five cents.

No one talks except Tahir.

“The Danish cartoonists made a mistake and we had protests. This is not good. What do you think?”

We follow the rough contours of the trail, slipping repeatedly on the pebble-strewn ground. Cracks from the earthquake fissure the soil and I peer into one’s black depths. We all freeze when someone dislodges a rock, afraid it may trigger a landslide, and we listen to it tumble downward until it fades into nothing. Then we proceed once again, climbing, gripping low-hanging tree limbs, sliding forward on our asses, getting back up, walking. Through it all, Tahir continues undeterred.

“If the Holy Quran is a book and you read it and recite from it and don’t understand it, are you Muslim? What do you think?”

After an hour, we emerge into a clearing. I see far below me the road and the Jhelum splashing over fallen rocks, taxi drivers out-hustling one another for those of us emerging from the mountain.

*  *  *  *  

Our taxi vibrates violently and fills with gas fumes. The windows don’t roll down. My head swims and Tahir’s eyes bug out of his head. The driver lights a cigarette and I cringe against the expected explosion but nothing happens. We proceed down the pitted road and through shattered villages where flattened roofs look like rafts coasting off the sides of buildings clawed in half.

The driver follows the road around the Jhelum and into mountains. We chug and shake upward until we level out in a meadow and brake beside a shop. Tahir and I fall out of the taxi gasping.

“Are you not fine?” the shopkeeper asks us.

When I clear my lungs of gas fumes, I ask about Punein village. He points toward some tents. Beside the tents stand huts patched together with broken doors, strips of aluminum siding, and stacked chairs.

“This is Punein village,” he says.

*  *  *  *  

“Yes, I was in Narul camp,” Parveen Akhtar tells me after a long moment.

She stares at the ground. When she entered the tent, she bowed her head and pulled a scarf below her eyes. Now as I speak to her, I notice how long it takes her to respond. Tahir repeats my questions several times.

“She is too simple,” he whispers.

“We were thrown out by the man in charge of camp,” she says finally. “He said, ‘We can’t provide for you anymore.’ He said, ‘The aid of the world is not so much. If they can’t give, how can we?’ For six days he told us this. We left today.”

Parveen was cleaning dishes when the earthquake started. The ground shifted beneath her feet and the roof collapsed on her. Her mother pulled her out and together with her eight-year-old son and ten-year-old daughter they walked to Muzaffarabad.

I ask her how it feels to be back in Punein. She stares at her feet. I wait, Tahir translates, asks her again and again. Still nothing.

“She is so simple. She can’t answer your question,” Tahir says.

Slowly, Parveen turns to me.

“What can I feel? My brother, sister, nephew died. My husband is in the army. I have two children. I am back here with nothing.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You are sorry …”

She looks at her feet and I know she won’t speak to me again.

*  *  *  *  

I watch Parveen leave the tent, the flap scraping the hard ground as it closes behind her, sealing in the stale air with her sadness until it presses down on me with the weight of a crowded room. I have seen too many people like her, not simple but lost, their lives suspended by grief and abandonment.

I don’t get it. In its push to empty the relief camps, the Pakistani government has turned thousands of displaced people into homeless refugees, in a country already facing strong internal antagonism from jihadist factions opposed to President Musharraf’s close alliance with the US. But American and Pakistani officials have all but abdicated the relief effort to Jamaat-ud-Dawa, despite its possible ties to terrorists, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of earthquake survivors are likely to feel deep gratitude to people bent on our destruction. Instead, the Pakistani government has withdrawn to the comfort of their flowcharts that neatly delineate the relief phase from the reconstruction effort. It all works on paper. And that’s good enough for us.

You are sorry …

I am sorry, Parveen, I truly am. I feel complicit in these empty plans because I accepted them, believed they were enough. As your sorrow, the sorrow around me here, simmers to a boil in the days, weeks, and months ahead, I will know my guilt is not enough. And I’m sorry for that, too.

*  *  *  *  

Tahir and I leave Punein with our impervious taxi driver and are nearly asphyxiated by the time he drops us off at the trail. We begin the long painful uphill climb and gradually work our way back to the car, relieved to stumble off the mountain for good. Hands on our knees, we collect our breath. We have been gone four hours. I see Yassin’s head tipped back in his seat. Asleep. Bastard.

“Come,” I tell Tahir.

We creep toward the car. Shopkeepers in dilapidated roadside stalls watch us. At the count of three we shove up and down on the trunk.

“Zalzala!” Tahir shouts in Urdu. “Earthquake!”

Yassin explodes, all legs and arms, bursts out of the car and bolts down the road.

“Ai!”

I double over, convulsed with laughter. The shopkeepers cover their mouths but I can see the smile in their eyes. Tahir pounds on the car howling. I hear Yassin cursing and I laugh harder.

*  *  *  *  

It is evening and I sit on the third-floor deck of the Al-Habib Hotel, avoiding our room. The toilet—a porcelain shit hole in the floor—stinks like hell. A bare light bulb above our three beds casts a dim hepatitis yellow across the walls, further diminishing the room’s appeal.

The mountains form dark lumps behind the Muzaffarabad skyline, and dozens of tents stand like beacons reflecting the glow of moonlight. I see campfires and the flicker of oil-burning lamps. A truck rumbles down the road below us and I feel its vibrations shudder through the walls.

In the room next to ours, Ishtiaq Ahmad and his wife and three little boys have just returned from Karachi where they took refuge with his parents after the earthquake. In the morning, Ishtiaq and his family will return to their home in Hattian Bala village not far from Punein.

“I am very much lucky. No one in our family was hurt. I will help my brother in Hattian Bala prepare to be wed.”

“Congratulations.”

“It is life,” he says considering the mountains and the deepening night.

I watch his boys climb over trunks and mounds of clothes his wife tries to sort. One of them lurches against the bed. The balcony shakes. I assume another truck has passed below but I see no traffic on the street.

“Zalzala,” Ishtiaq gasps.

The shaking increases. I hear screams. Plaster chips off the walls and I grip my chair. I am not laughing now.

Then it stops.

“Aftershock,” Ishtiaq says in a whisper.

I let go of my chair, my fingers still clenched. Ishtiaq checks on his family. None of them is hurt. Beneath us, as Yassin warned me, the ground still moves.

*  *  *  *  

Midnight. Yassin snores like a bull. Tahir sleeps buried under blankets. I stare at the rotating ceiling fan and the cracks running around it.

“Yassin!” I shout.

He sleeps on. Through my window I see storm clouds seethe in the mountains, flashes of lightning. Scavenging dogs bark. I add the numbers locked in my head like counting sheep.

“Fifteen in my family die.”

“Seven die in my family.”

“My wife, my mother, they are gone.”

Fifteen and seven and two. Twenty-four.

“Three in my family die. All are nephews.”

“Ten in my family die. All are children and were in school.”

Thirteen more. Thirty-seven. The drone of still more voices keeps me counting.

“Six … four … eight …”

Yassin snores to wake the dawn. Tahir sleeps. I listen to an approaching thunderstorm. I watch the fan spin, counting into the night.

*  *  *  *  


Brothers Ghazi Khan (foreground) and Daudh Khan clear roads of earthquake debris in Muzaffarabad (J. Malcolm Garcia).

Today we leave Muzaffarabad for Islamabad where I will catch a flight back to the States, but I want to find Dr. Bilal’s house before we go. Yassin asks a clerk at the Al-Habib for directions but we instantly get lost in the maze of narrow, congested streets converging around jammed marketplaces of sagging shops fashioned out of broken buildings.

We stop often and show shopkeepers Dr. Bilal’s address until Yassin turns down a street he thinks is the right one. A two-story house stands alone next to empty lots filled with chunks of shattered concrete, fallen pillars, collapsed roofs, rotted doors. We ask a man if he knows Dr. Bilal. Was that his house? The man, Mohammed Masken, cannot say. He points at the rubble.

“Over there was a school. There a clinic. There a barn for my goats. There my son’s house.”

I know without asking that his son died.

“Twenty-two years of age,” Mohammed says, reading my mind. “Six of my daughters died and my wife. I tried to save them. I have no one around me now. I’m alive because Allah gave me a chance to redeem my sins.”

We consider this. We watch crows land in the destroyed lots, peck around the concrete for food, and fly away. Cows graze in a trash pile nearby on what was once a patio and where now dogs sleep. Clouds block the sun and shadows consume boys picking through the garbage for plastic bottles. In the midst of the wreckage tied to a broken tree branch hangs a green and white bandanna worn by members of Jamaat-ud-Dawa.

“This is too much difficult a way to find forgiveness,” Yassin says finally.

I nod, so does Tahir. Mohammed sighs and closes his eyes.

On this point we all agree.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading