What happened on the morning of October 8, 2005, was shocking and traumatic. The earthquake that befell that day would be remembered for a very long to come. Most people were still asleep when suddenly they were jolted awake. All at once they began screaming from their houses and apartment blocks, confounded and staggering as repeated quakes of 7.6 on the Richter scale rocked the earth. It was Saturday, just before 9 am. By the time people came to their senses, the phone network was totally jammed. The sweep of death and destruction across a vast swathe of territory from Kashmir to Hazara, Swat and Islamabad, was heart-rending. The most powerful quake to hit the region in 100 years killed thousands of people and caused massive destruction in northern Pakistan and areas close to its epicenter, which was in Pakistan-Administered Kashmir some 95 kilometers northeast of the federal capital. At least 32,335 buildings collapsed in various cities in the Kashmir region—including Anantnag and Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir State (now union territory), with additional property losses reported in the Pakistani cities of Islamabad, Lahore, and in Gujarat, among others.
In some places, whole sections of towns slid off cliffs and entire families were killed. The adjoining areas suffered severe devastation, and the town of Balakot (Pakistan) in the North-West Frontier Province was almost completely destroyed. The quake occurred just before the onset of the region’s harsh winter, exacerbating the disaster’s effects. In addition, landslides wiped out large numbers of the region’s roads, making many of the damaged areas inaccessible to relief workers in the immediate aftermath. In all, more than 80,000 people died as a result of the quake and an estimated 4 million others were left homeless. At least 1,350 people were killed and 6,266 injured in Jammu and Kashmir in India, and the tremors were felt at a distance of up to 620 miles (1,000 km), as far away as Delhi and Punjab in northern India. Four fatalities and 14 injured survivors were reported in Afghanistan.
The northern district of Baramulla was badly hit by the earthquake. People residing in Tehsil Uri and adjoining areas were also badly affected, their houses damaged, many buildings razed to the ground. There was hue and cry everywhere with people looking for children who were in schools. A number of school and hospital buildings collapsed. Communication came to a halt. Trucks carrying labourers who were working on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road were hit by the shooting stones from mountains. The dead bodies were recovered after strenuous efforts for 4-5 days from River Jhelum.
The collapse of a 10-storey apartment complex in Islamabad gripped the attention of the entire nation, as thousands of people rushed to the scene to rescue those trapped in the rubble. While the country was still reeling from the tragedy in Islamabad, another rude awakening was just around the corner. With news slowly trickling down from different areas, soon the news spread that Azad Kashmir had been the worst hit, followed by NWFP, next to the Afghan border. The next day brought terrible pain and anguish to yet more people of Azad Kashmir who had gone to work in the big cities but returned to their home villages to find them razed to the ground.
As Saturday is a normal school day in the region, most students were at schools when the earthquake struck. Many were buried under collapsed school buildings. Many people were also trapped in their homes and because it was the month of Ramadan, most people were taking a nap after their pre-dawn meal and did not have time to escape. Reports indicate that entire towns and villages were completely wiped out in northern Pakistan, with other surrounding areas also suffering severe damage.
The devastating earthquake hit the residents of both the parts of Kashmir in many ways. In Muzzafarabad and Bagh districts of Azad Kashmir, the disaster had stolen shelter virtually from every single inhabitant of the adjoining areas. The whole area seemed to wear the look of a devastated place. However, the destruction was not as dramatic and anguishing as it was in Muzaffarabad. The tremors were as deadly as they could be, regardless of the fact that the impact came in a different shape. Azad Kashmir’s sprawling capital city looked like a ghost town, a 21st century reminder to the World War II blitzkrieg. With entire suburban population heading to the town in hope of relief, more danger of disease was at hand with some 20,000 bodies decaying underneath the rubble and countless injured living in the worst unhygienic conditions. The city’s only health facility, the 400-beded Combined Military Hospital, was probably the first victim of the earthquake leaving some 200 dead. There was no power supply. Telephone lines were dead and no diesel or petrol was available to run any vehicle.
In such a calamity the medical staff could do nothing more than minor surgery, bandage and administering anti-biotic injections. The patients were scattered all over the ground with some lying on the cots brought from home — a few lucky ones on hospital beds, yet others on pull carts and many simply on the ground. It is estimated that about one thousand hospitals were destroyed in the earthquake in Pakistan, severely hampering urgent medical treatment for thousands of injured people. The only public library in the area of Kashmir was completely destroyed in the magnitude of 7.6 earthquake that devastated the mountainous region. The Khurshid National Library in Muzaffarabad, near the epicenter of the quake, apparently fell into one of two huge crevasses that opened up suddenly within the city. The library was caved in deep in the ground and only a small, demolished part was visible. Numerous victims were schoolchildren, who had just begun classes when all of a sudden school buildings collapsed on top of them. Children made up half the population of the affected area and were particularly vulnerable according to the UN children’s agency Unicef. It was a whole generation that appeared to be lost in the worst affected areas.
While the rescuers were pulling out dead children in Muzaffarabad, there was none to claim the bodies. It clearly indicated that their parents were dead. The rescue effort had been slowed by landslides, which had wiped out roads and bridges, and a lack of helicopters to ferry in vital heavy lifting equipment. A road was re-opened into Muzaffarabad where 11,000 are thought to have died, allowing trucks to deliver food and medical supplies. People were becoming more and more desperate with medical supplies and trucks, which were so late to deliver food because of closed roads. There was many a report of looting at damaged shops and homes.
It was immensely distressing while tens of thousands of survivors spent a second night in the cold without shelter. The quake also jolted Afghanistan and India and could be felt as far as 640 kilometers away from its epicenter. The tremor was so strong that the structures shook and swayed mercilessly as panicked residents raced out of their houses and work places to open places chanting prayers. About four million people had been affected by the quake. The major loss occurred in five Azad Kashmir districts and six northern districts of NWFP. The death toll was over hundred thousand and seriously injured were in a greater number. It was the greatest life loss the country ever faced after its inception in 1947. The quake was numbing, horrifying and unbelievable as thousands of families were rendered homeless and the entire young generation of Azad Kashmir had been perished. In the northern districts of NWFP, Balakot, a town of about 250,000 people, appeared to be the hardest hit as it was almost devastated. The disaster stunned the nation as reconstruction cost could go beyond 5 billion dollars.
It was a testing time for the nation but people faced that calamity with ineffable courage and pluck as thousands of people flocked to help their fellow citizens who had been hit by the worst and most horrible earthquake. Thousands of people rushed to different camps and donate generously and open-heartedly. Apart from Pakistanis rescue teams, aid arrived into Pakistan from all over the world but the magnitude of the devastation is so huge that at least two decades are required for the reconstruction and rehabilitation process.
—The writer is a Nursing Research scholar. [email protected]