The Kashmir Earthquake: A Father’s Grief

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The high point of Abdul Qumayon’s life took place six weeks ago. As relations appeared to improve between India and Pakistan, a bus service opened between the halves of Kashmir divided between the two warring nations. An aunt and uncle whom Qumayon had never met, separated from him like many Kashmiri families by the partition of the subcontinent in 1947 and intervening wars, came across to see him in Uri, in Indian-held Kashmir. They had traveled from Muzzafarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir, just over the Line of Control that separates the Indian and Pakistani portions of Kashmir. He proudly showed off his household, including his eldest son, Sohil, to the visiting aunt and uncle. “They stayed for a month and a half,” he says. "We talked. We had tea. It was summer. We even cooked a wazwan (the traditional Kashmiri feast). I was almost mad with happiness.”

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Now he is virtually numb with grief. The 45-year-old laborer may never recover from the despair that overcame him Saturday, when he watched the two houses he built with his own hands crumble and bury Sohil alive as a cataclysmic earthquake devastated Kashmir. The temblor, 7.6 on the Richter scale, recognized no borders. There is yet no news from Qumayon’s aunt and uncle in Muzzafarabad. The indications from Pakistan are not good: 70% of Muzzafarabad, a city of 100,000 people, may have been leveled.

Until last Saturday, Uri had been a relatively safe place in Kashmir, despite its near proximity to the Line of Control. Aside from some stray shelling every few years from across the Pakistani border 12 miles away, Qumayom says his hometown was an island of peace amid the violence that swept Indian Kashmir when a civil war erupted between Indian soldiers and Muslim militants in 1989. “Uri was safe,” he says. “Nothing happened here. It’s always been a place apart. The soldiers did their duties and we did our jobs. We didn't bother each other."

There had been the dull ache of a divided family, split by the 1947 partition and the Line of Control established in 1949 after the first India-Pakistan war. But that seemed to evaporate with summer’s family reunion. Yet even that recent happiness is a distant memory now. Asked whether he had word from Muzzafarabad, the epicenter of Saturday's earthquake where an estimated 11,000 people died, Qumayom said absently: “We have had no communication with them.”

Now, his every thought is filled by the image of Sohil, running along a narrow lane between Qumayon’s two houses, as the walls bulged and burst into rivers of rocks and dust, swallowing the boy. “We kept trying to dig him out,” says Qumayom, “but every time we went back, the ground would shake again and we would run away.” He adds, blankly: “We were afraid.”

He pulls out Sohil's identity card and strokes the photograph of a strikingly beautiful boy, whose date of birth makes him 14. "He wanted to be a shopkeeper. He used to collect toffees and candles and toys to open his first shop with. I guess they're buried with him.”

Thirty-six hours after the disaster, the authorities in Uri say they have counted 400 dead and 3,000 injured in their township alone. They acknowledge that that is a fraction of the likely final toll. Uri Deputy Commissioner Aiyaz Kakroo says 113,000 people live in 95 villages around Uri and 75 of those have suffered “90% damage,” by which he means houses damaged beyond being inhabitable, or totally destroyed. “We have fifteen to twenty thousand damaged homes,” he says. “We need 50,000 blankets and 15,000 tents. So far we have two to three thousand blankets and a few hundred tents."

In the weeks ahead, there's also the challenge and burden of reconstruction. “It's a gigantic task, and we must be very quick," says Aiyaz, as he gestures at the Himalayan peaks around him. “Come November and December, winter will set in.”

For Qumayom, the seasons have already changed, maybe forever. “This is a blighted place,” he says. “All this was God’s will, for this place, and for us who live in it."