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Pakistan: Starting over in a ruined landscape

Makeshift tent shelters.

Thousands of residents of the town of Balakot, about 60 miles north of Islamabad, are living in tent shelters set up by relief organizations.

It is said in the Qur'an that mountains were created by God to stabilize the earth, acting as pins pressed into the soil, holding the world together.

"And he has set up on the earth mountains standing firm, lest it should shake with you."

I thought of this verse as I drove along the winding mountain passes to Balakot, the ruined city of the north, wondering how the people there would interpret the quake.

To tell the story of Balakot, you must begin with the description of its beauty -- how that beauty grows in seductive waves with every turn that takes you higher into the mountains, closer to the city. The alpine forests grow deeper, greener. And the mountains become bluer, like indigo, their muscular sides taut under the Himalayan sun. And just when it seems the mountains can grow no larger, no more imposing, they drop suddenly away at a clearing, revealing the deepest valley you can imagine, the final approach to Balakot. That's where you see a city of tents spread across the valley below.

Some 7,000 people died here, half of them children killed when hundreds of schools collapsed. Thousands are now homeless and racing against time to find shelter before the Himalayan winter sets in.

Some 7,000 people died here, half of them children killed when hundreds of schools collapsed. Thousands are now homeless and racing against time to find shelter before the Himalayan winter sets in. Their world has been turned upside down -- a once proud existence within and intimacy with the mountains has been reduced to lines of relief trucks and desperate queues for bread.

When you arrive in Balakot, the destruction is in finer degrees: The cement piles accumulate at shorter intervals; the tent villages begin to crowd the landscape; and in the heart of Balakot proper, it's a scene of ruination. The town slants sideways as if it has been crushed by an impetuous boot. Eerie remains are crystallized into haunting images -- metal twisted into grotesque filigree, ceramics exploded across the ground, a chunk of hotel frozen just before spilling into a river.

It's hard not to be awed by the completeness of the devastation here. In Abbottabad, a neighboring city, I met Tanveer Afzel, an aid worker who helped me visualize the fury of this destruction.

"I tell you, when the quake struck, it didn't shake the land side to side -- it threw all the buildings up in the air, and they came crashing down into nothing," he said, cigarette smoke pouring out of his mouth. "An area 100 miles long and 7 kilometers wide has been destroyed. The land has changed color."

Map showing the quake epicenter.

The region of Northern Pakistan and the disputed territory at the epicenter of the earthquake.

It's true. The earth itself has been ravaged and scarred. The color of the mountain range behind Balakot has changed. There are large stretches where the ripped-away earth has turned from dark green to stone gray. At various spots, the mountain's breast seems to have collapsed into itself, cutting a deep gorge that spills toward the land.

But there are also signs of healing. Shops have reopened, limited commerce has resumed, and children in tent camps wear new clothes to celebrate the Eid ul Fitr, the end of Ramadan -- a month of sacrifice made all the more meaningful by what happened here on October 8, 2005.

As I walked through the town, I sought out some of the village elders, who, like everyone else in town, were wandering the streets, looking for information, for relief, for family members.

Abdul Rasheed told me he was born in Balakot and had watched the town prosper. It grew in the 1970s as the gateway to Khagan Valley, a major tourist destination that drew crowds from as far away as Germany and Switzerland, he said proudly. "Most of the people were working in the tourism industry, so they saw their lives prosper." Kasam, a 60-year-old shopkeeper, agreed. "Before the tourism industry, the area was very backward. Tourism played an important role in the economic prosperity. It generated jobs, a service sector -- this was the only source of income," he said.

But the most tragic twist of the quake is planted in that prosperity. The elders said that as the town expanded, so, too, did the number of concrete houses and buildings, replacing the traditional mud homes that once colored the valley. Almost all of those cement buildings fell when the earthquake struck, whereas many of the mud structures remained, Rasheed said. More than 100 hotels were destroyed. "We have seen the development for 35 years. And now we're back where we started," Kasam told me.

Young men cut hair amongst the rubble.

Young men sit for a haircut at makeshift salons set up amongst the rubble -- one of many signs that life is slowly returning to Balakot.

Shahaldem, whom I met on the roadside one afternoon, had been working as a laborer in Muscat, Oman, for 25 years. He returned to Balakot for only one month each year. He made good money in Oman, and he had built a house and bought his wife jewelry. Now the house had collapsed, killing three of his children and trapping all the jewelry inside. "We are back to where we started," he said.

But Shahaldem considered himself lucky. "I got to bury two of my children myself. One was already in the ground when I arrived," he said, adding that he still had three children who survived.

This steely resilience characterized many of the people I met here. Perhaps they had no more tears to shed, but, far from broken, many seemed imbued with a greater sense of God's presence, if not His wrath. They weren't angry with the mountain or at nature's injustice. In this already deeply religious area, people's religious beliefs were fortified. "This has further strengthened our faith," the elderly Mohammed Kasan told me, standing on the roadside. "This is the result of our sins. We are begging forgiveness from God." It was a statement I heard over and over.

In the weeks following the earthquake, Balakot has probably never seen so many foreign visitors. The landscape resembled a mini-United Nations, with doctors from China camped next to the Korean Medical University team. Hummers from the United Arab Emirates mobile hospital rolled through the streets while Pakistani and American helicopters roared above, their blades thumbing the valley.

Among these relief outlets, many Islamist groups were present, with volunteers doling out food and aid from well-organized camps. Like so many Pakistanis, students of the Islamist parties had come here on Eid to donate their time. "Since birth, we have spent our Eid with our parents. But we thought we should spend Eid with the wounded," said 21-year-old Taseen Afab, a member of Islami Jamaat Taleban, the student wing of the Islami Jamaat party. Taseen showed me how people from all over Pakistan had sent small gift packs for children that contained drawing books and toys.

Collapsed homes.

Houses reduced to rubble dot the landscape in Balakot. Some assessments of the damage estimate that 25,000 houses were destroyed in the town.

This streamlined student contingent came in sharp relief to the army here, which has a muscular but scattered presence throughout Balakot. They are doing what they can, but many say it's not enough for an institution that consumes half the nation's budget. Some survivors were asking, "Why doesn't the army have enough helicopters? Where has all the money gone?" Meanwhile, fears are growing that Islamist groups will capitalize on the tragedy, using their relief efforts to build political clout.

If there is resentment, it's not toward God, but the government. Many of the people I spoke with said they had received nothing from the government. "Only private foundations and international NGOs have given relief," an angry Munawar Hussein told me. Hussein, a schoolteacher, was one of about 100 men who took part in a protest against the government just hours before I left Balakot, brandishing signs that read "Long Live Pakistan. Down With the Government."

The city's mosque was flattened, so during Ramadan the men of the town gathered under open sky on the ruins of the Government Boys High School, where 500 students were killed. Mazur Ali Qasim, a local politician, spoke at the prayer that morning. Ali Qasim lost 100 family members, including his brother. "Now it is a warning for those of us who have survived to redefine our daily life in line with the injunctions of Islam and the holy Qur'an," he told those gathered. As he spoke, a few people in the crowd said that the bodies of 200 boys still lay under the rubble of the school.

That is the story of Balakot, a palimpsest where the survivors live reluctantly over the dead.

David Montero, a frequent contributor to the FRONTLINE/World Web site, is a freelance journalist currently based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He has written for The Christian Science Monitor, The Nation, Mother Jones and others.

Photos: Muhammed Sajjad


Aaron Allen - Eielson A.F.B. Alaska, AK
Knowledge, education and understanding will beat out anything.

Peter Langer - North Vancouver, BC, Canada
Nicely written piece. I just returned from Balakot and Kashmir myself and was astounded at the steely determination of these hardy people. In spite of all the destruction, their sense of hospitality was intact.