Muzaffarabad in ruins
MUZAFFARABAD, Oct 10: This capital of Azad Kashmir of 0.2 million is no more a city of the living. It is almost a graveyard now. Bodies can be seen everywhere, on roads, streets and under the debris of devastated buildings. There are no medicines and food available and people fight over limited stocks.
People have to spend their nights under the open sky and some in their vehicles. There are no tents, no food and no drinking water. Thousands of people are still alive under the debris and fallen building structures.
“I am alive. Pull me out for God’s sake,” this reporter heard a man cry out from under the main branch building of the National Bank of Pakistan in central Muzaffarabad on Sunday night. But it is very difficult to lift the debris of a two-storey building without machines or equipment. You hear many such cries for help.
“I kept on shouting for help for about one hour. People were going here and there. They would see me and move away without any help,” said Fauzia, a 25-year-old university student who was buried under the rubble of her two-storey house. Finally her injured sister, Bushra, managed to persuade some relatives to pull Fauzia out.
Luckily, Fauzia did not receive any major injury. “I saw death so closely, it’s a new lease of life for me,” she says. I recited verses from the Holy Quran, whatever I could remember, in the belief that death was a few seconds away.
There is practically no government in Muzaffarabad at the moment. It’s complete chaos everywhere. Roads to and from the town are closed, except the one linking it with Islamabad through Abbottabad. People were walking on foot from the capital to Lohargali, about 10km towards Mansehra, to find safe places.
There was no electricity supply till Sunday. Some telephone lines are now working, but sporadically. Those with their own vehicles were moving out of the capital through the Abbotabad road but otherwise fuel was not available. Some people helped themselves to take petrol and diesel from petrol pumps to leave the city on Sunday night.
Military helicopters are mostly bringing back their own injured and dead colleagues and a limited number of civilians. Almost all the military personnel stationed at Muzaffarabad’s Shaukat Lane have either died or been seriously injured.
Muzaffarabad’s Combined Military Hospital (CMH) is no longer there. Many doctors and nurses along with tens of patients are believed to have been killed when the building collapsed. Eyewitnesses said no one could be evacuated from the children’s and gynaecology wards of the CMH.
The whole Old Campus of the Azad Kashmir University has been flattened. Many students, teachers and other staff of three departments, botany, geology and computer science, were killed. A fire was said to have erupted there immediately after the earthquake.
About 600 children were in the Rizwan Public School when its building collapsed. About 124 children were reported to have been rescued by their relatives. Similarly, witnesses said they saw hundreds of dead schoolgirls in the Islamabad School and College in Muzaffarabad and the Soheli Sarkar Girls Higher Secondary School and Girls High School, Narrol.
Saima, a university student, said her cousin Asma died in front of her eyes along with dozens of other girls in the girls’ hostel of the AJK University as she ran out and later identified her dead body.
The populous Madina Market, a shopping centre-cum-residential area, the famous Kashmiri and Khwaja mohallas, Sethi Bagh and Kalar Syeddan and the Liaqat Market in front of the old AJK University have all disappeared. No one had reached these areas until Monday morning. A couple of thousands of deaths could not be ruled out there, a number of locals said.
In Madina Market’s remains, I found that it was not possible to move without touching bodies. At least five close relatives of this reporter died and many others were injured in Muzaffarabad.
In front of the National Bank’s main branch is the decades-old building of the Central jail. Most of the inmates died under its rubble; the rest have opted to move away. There is no difference now between the law-breaker and the law-enforcer. This reporter saw a handcuffed prisoner walking away barefoot with a number of other people towards Lohargali.
AJK minister Shireen Waheed and her husband Waheed Khan were also reported dead at the Neelum View Hotel where many others also lost their lives. Many buildings including a portion of Sangam Hotel slid into the Jhelum along with many dwellers.
After the visit to Muzaffarabad, one reaches the conclusion that more than 80 per cent of the city has been devastated. It is apparent that at least 50 per cent of the havoc was due to the complicity of government agencies and contractors in raising substandard buildings.
Most of the buildings destroyed are government buildings — hospitals, schools, colleges and offices. The under-construction Supreme Court building, assembly secretariat and the new secretariat did not collapse, but are unusable now owing to the large cracks that have appeared in the buildings.
Generally, there was poor mobilization for rescue work, both by the government and civilians and NGOs. Everybody was looking for their own relatives and there was no joint effort to save those crying out from the debris.
But even in this state of mayhem, greed did not vanish. There were many who moved around to collect valuables from the devastated houses.
One cannot find any building from the Saheli Sarkar shrine to the north-east end of Muzzafarabad, a stretch of about three kilometres, while the Jhila Bandi bridge, which links Neelum Valley with the city, was badly damaged and was no more drivable. Similarly, the Chakoti bridge linking AJK with the occupied Kashmir was also reported damaged.
Uppar Chattar, a residential colony of about 1,000 private houses, is the only locality of Muzaffarabad where damage was almost invisible, and where many people had taken shelter.
A senior official of AJK planning department told this reporter that it would be impossible to revive Muzaffarabad in the next 40 years. He said it would be economically more prudent and cost effective to set up the capital at a new place because replacement of debris would cost a lot owing to congested space in the ruined city.
This reporter also witnessed digging of a large area some two kilometres from the AJK Legislative Assembly for mass graves. The bodies were being buried without shrouds as some had started decomposing.
An emergency programme would be required to cope with the looming outbreak of diseases.