At mid-morning, an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale struck just west of Kashmir's Line of Control, along which hundreds of thousands of Indian and Pakistani troops face off in bunkers and artillery installations and over which they have fought two wars and countless skirmishes and nearly came to a nuclear confrontation in 2002. The result: At least 18,000 dead, the majority of them on the Pakistani side of the disputed territory.
"Destruction is massive in Uri," an Indian army spokesman told TIME. "It's close to the epicenter. Initial reports are that not many houses are standing." As buildings crumbled, he added, gas pipes ruptured and fires swept the central market in the town just across the Line of Control on the Indian side of Kashmir. Simultaneously, landslides cut off Uri, and much of the surrounding area, from the world and swatted two buses full with passengers into a rocky mountain gorge. Sixteen Indian soldiers were buried alive in a bunker at Uri. The Police Inspector General of Police, Javed Mukhdoomi, had definite information on one town, Dangdar, near Kupwara. "Almost the entire town has been razed," he said. The Indian army spokesman also had his certainties. The final count of dead would be "very high," he said.
Tens of thousands of people have died in a civil war between Indian security forces and Muslim insurgents demanding either independence from India or union with Pakistan. But the earthquake managed to instill new levels of fear. "I'm 86," said Gul Muhammad Butt. "Never in my life have I experienced anything like it."
In the Pakistan, military rescue pilots who flew over Himalayan valleys on their side of the border saw scores of villages pulverized by landslides unleashed by the quake. Pakistani officials also say that the mountain town of Muzaffarabad, also on the Line of Control, with a population of more than a hundred thousand inhabitants, is "70% destroyed".
The earthquake was dramatically felt in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf climbed over the rubble of a flattened apartment building in Islamabad to spur on rescue workers trying to free dozens of families trapped underneath collapsed slabs of concrete. "It is a test for all of us, the entire nation," the president said as he returned to army headquarters to coordinate relief efforts in the mountainous northern areas of Pakistan that were worst hit. He dispatched 10 M-17 helicopters to rescue people in the stricken areas. How Musharraf handles the relief operations will certainly be a test for his six-year old military rule. His popularity has fallen due to recent gas price hikes and his refusal to allow the leaders of the mainstream political parties to return from exile.
How would the catastrophe affect relations in the regionwhich, apart from the Pakistani and Indian armed forces, includes a sizeable U.S. military presence in Afghanistan? In a rare gesture of friendship between the two hostile nations, India said it would send rescue workers to help Pakistan, if requested. Meanwhile, the helicopters Musharraf dispatched to help victims of the earthquake were diverted from duty scouring the Afghan-Pakistan border for al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, one Islamabad official said. Reporters who wanted to travel to the ravaged regions were told they could be flown into the worst hit areas of Uri but were unlikely to be brought back immediately as the military helicopters were pressed into service mainly to bring the injured in for treatment. Could U.S. troops and aircraft in Afghanistan be deployed? That question is a sensitive one on the Pakistani side because of America's unpopularity in the Islamic country.
The catastrophe prompted scenes of dread and supplication unusual even for strife-torn Kashmir. Families wandered the streets, refusing to return to their homes. Children and women wailed in the open. Schools, whose examination halls had been filled with students taking their high school diplomas, were deserted, answer sheets scattered on the floor. When the tremors hit, people rushed screaming into the street. When they found open ground, families began offering special naful prayers, while others knelt on the roadside and began reciting the Quran. Loudspeakers in the mosques urged the faithful to seek forgiveness. "I thought doomsday had fallen," said Abdur Rashid Hajjam, as he came out of prayers at a Sufi shrine. "Pray for our brethren who died today and thank Allah for we are safe," said the imam at Illahi Bagh mosque on the outskirts of Srinagar, which lies in Indian-ruled Kashmir. "Whatever the scientists say, our Prophet said that when this earth is replete with sin, this would happen." As evening fell, the thanksgiving prayer, Nimaz-e-shukrana, echoed from every mosque in Kashmir.
Kashmir's hospitals were treating trauma that religion couldn't heal. Dr. Anwar Hussein said his SMHS hospital in Srinagar received some injured, but most of the 270 patients admitted, their nerves frayed by 16 long years of war, were suffering from "palpitations and shock." Other hospitals were unable to provide the same succor. Many had developed cracks, and patients and nurses alike were refusing to enter.
With reporting by Syed Talat Hussain/Islamabad and Ghulam Hasnain/Karachi