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Pakistan quake leaves good life in ruins

The devastating South Asian earthquake transformed poor and middle-class communities into an apocalyptic landscape of broken concrete, warped metal and shattered dreams.
On the road to Muzzafarabad, Pakistan, a crowd gathers to collect tents and bedclothes passed out by volunteers.
On the road to Muzzafarabad, Pakistan, a crowd gathers to collect tents and bedclothes passed out by volunteers. N. C. Aizenman / The Washington Post
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Until last week, the Ismail family, like other residents of the tidy complex in this city reserved for Pakistani state radio employees, considered themselves middle-class, privileged people. They had solid incomes and solid homes in a region where thousands of rural people live in poverty.

But now, their community has been transformed by a massive earthquake into an apocalyptic landscape of broken concrete and warped metal.

One of the few items the Ismails were able to salvage from the wreckage of their house -- a small black radio -- has been forecasting frequent rain showers. Adding insult to injury, they have not even been able to get hold of a plastic tent to protect their children from the constant, cold drizzle that signals the fast-approaching Kashmiri winter. Every time relief trucks loaded with supplies pull up, there is a chaotic, unseemly scramble, and the piles of tents vanish.

"We're respectable people. We can't run after trucks like that," said Mohammed Ismail, 52, a retired noncommissioned officer in the army who works as a security guard for the radio station.

Ali Zuman Batt, 38, a neighbor who is also a security guard and retired army officer, said he had asked both the army and the fire department for a tent. To his surprise and dismay, both turned him away.

Not pointing fingers
But unlike many other homeless quake victims, these families were reluctant to blame the military for the lack of relief supplies, saying authorities had been preoccupied with removing the dead and rescuing the injured.

"Had there not been an army, who would have been pulling out all these dead bodies?" Mohammed said. "Civilians would not have been able to do that."

So the Ismails have been left to fend for themselves. On Friday, after nearly a week of sleeping under a tree, they began trying to build a shed around it. Mohammed's wife, Amber, 38, was too swollen and bruised to help much. At the moment of the quake, she had been on the second floor of the house when it collapsed around her. But Mohammed and the couple's three children, plus two nieces and a nephew, all pitched in.

They did not have much to work with. There was a large plastic sheet, barely thicker than cellophane, that relief workers had dropped by earlier in the day. There were some metal grates and twisted steel poles poking out of the enormous piles of rubble all around them.

After about an hour of tugging and balancing and fastening, the family had erected a four-foot tent that sagged precariously in the center.

"I don't think this is going to keep us dry," said Amber, pointing to a rip in the plastic above her head. "But what else can we do?"

Her son, Mohammed Tahir, 15, was openly bitter.

"This was the government's responsibility first," he said. "We are too much disappointed in them."

So it went across northeastern Pakistan on Friday, as thousands of families continued to search for shelter six days after the powerful earthquake left an estimated 2 million people in the region homeless.

Search for survivors ends
The quake, which also affected parts of Indian-held Kashmir, killed an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 people. Kashmir, a mountainous and verdant Himalayan region, is disputed territory, divided between India and Pakistan by a fortified cease-fire line.

In Islamabad, the capital, a senior U.N. official said Friday that search-and-rescue operations were over and that aid workers were now focused on helping those left alive.

"It's a cruel reality," Jan Egeland, the U.N.'s top relief coordinator, told reporters. "But after a week, very few people survive."

U.N. officials said there was an urgent need for tents and blankets before the onset of winter. They emphasized the need for coordination among the many aid groups and volunteers now rushing to the area. "If we don't work together we will become a disaster within a disaster," Egeland said.

The magnitude of the challenge was evident all along the winding mountain road into Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-held Kashmir, which was largely flattened.

Dry shelter in scarce supply
Clusters of women and children squatted in fields beside the road amid piles of bedclothes and pillows. Several miles outside the city, a crowd of men surged around a gray van as private volunteers tossed out bundled blue tents. The supply was exhausted within seconds.

"Once again, I've failed to get one of these," moaned Iftahar Hussein, a 22-year-old laborer wearing dirt-streaked baggy pants and a long shirt. "I've made so many attempts, but my family is still sleeping in the open."

In the radio employees' neighborhood, each family improvised in the absence of official support. Batt, his wife, and their 19-year-old son decided to use their plastic sheet to cover the boxes of food and milk they had managed to collect, rather than the three damp comforters and two foam mattresses. "That's what's most important," he said.

Some neighbors managed to build shacks from wood planks and scraps of corrugated metal. By far the best setup was managed by the Shafi clan, which had the benefit of more than 10 strong young men in their ranks as well as a large quantity of dark green waterproof fabric donated by a friend.

Pausing to grieve
But Mohammed Shafi, 50, the patriarch, took little satisfaction from the relatively dry encampment his children and other relatives had built. His wife had been crushed to death in the quake, along with his daughter-in-law, brother and sister-in-law.

"She was a woman of such principle and courage," he said quietly of his wife. Several of his sons covered their faces with their hands. "Her loss is a gap that can never be filled."

Back in the Ismails' tent, several family members bemoaned the lesser indignities of their new, reduced circumstances -- no showers, no change of clothes in days.

Amber, who would normally cook an evening feast of fried potatoes and spicy foods to break the daily Ramadan fast, complained that all she could prepare now were dates and chopped apples.

But the worst part of living outdoors, she said, was having her daughters exposed to public view.

Under the plastic tarp, Rosina, 18, the oldest girl, lit a candle as the sky darkened. Just then, four men wearing green turbans and long black beards approached. They were from Dawa Islamia, an association of Islamic preachers and missionaries, the men told Mohammed. They said they would be delivering a tent Saturday morning.

"Oh, thank God!" exhaled Rosina.

But her father was already thinking of the winter ahead. "This tent will serve us for one, maybe two months at most," Mohammed said. "But when the snow comes. . . ."

Correspondent John Lancaster in Islamabad contributed to this report.