Signs that Saturday's catastrophe is stretching India to the limit greet us as soon as we enter the quake zone. Even before we reach the broken houses, the landslides and the homeless droves, my translator Shaeeq and I get choked up in a traffic jamat the head of which is an angry clot of young men banging sticks on the tops of the car that try to pass, while women weep on the verge. "We are not begging, sir, we are not begging," one protester says, with the look of a man who hasn't slept for days. "We want help to remove our dead bodies."
After a while the demonstrators lose their fire and retreat, spent, to the side of the road. We drive west toward Pakistan and the earthquake epicenter. We pass through Uri, the nearest thing to a big town in this Indian Kashmir valley, where devastated houses barely stand at odd angles, missing walls from which crumbling rock and debris poured down. An entire row of shops has lost its front, as though sliced off by a blunt cheese wire, and bars of Lux soap, pastries and plastic toys spill out onto the street. We pass broken villages and military camps, including an artillery battery swamped by a mudslide, still vainly pointing toward Pakistan 10 miles away. There are three or four checkpoints. Then a landslide announces the end of the road and an end to any visible relief effort. We leave our driver and are confronted by a black mud slick that extends to a peak more than 3,000 ft. above. "Are you looking for dead bodies?" asks a young man carrying a box on his shoulders. He points to the slide. "There are 90 dead bodies in that." Tawoos Hussain Manhas, 20, is a civil servant who works in the capital of Indian Kashmir, Srinagar, but who was brought up in the village of Kamal Kote, a few miles away from Uri. When he heard of the disaster, he drove home to help out. He hasn't washed or slept since. The army, whose presence in the garrison town of Uri is almost oppressive, has not tried to cross the landslide. "No one has visited here. No doctor, no rescue, no civil administration." From where we are, we can see the green roofs of army cantonments, littered back up the valley.
We walk with Tawoos and his friend Altaf up a steep goat track toward Kamal Kote. They are carrying a sack of flour, 20 packets of biscuits, three loaves of bread, three eggplants, one cabbage, some tea, a bag of sugar, a box of candles and a few loose cigarettes. They are the relief effort. "I buried 27 people yesterday," says Tawoos. He is pale with lack of sleep and bitterness, and has to take frequent rests. He tells us there are 317 dead in Kamal Kote, a village of perhaps 1,000. His head is spinning with it all. "My house is destroyed. 2 crore rupees! ($500,000). I used to come back to this place like a prince to a palace. Now I don't even have a tent to shelter in." We walk some more, stepping over destroyed houses and flattened barns that smell sharply of something dead, and he tells us about his uncle, a college lecturer and a man of some prestige in the village. "He built a good life, he had a good house. And we had to bury him in nothing, just the rags that were left on him when we pulled him from the rubble. Nobody should die like that." He tells about the old man of the village, Maulvi Mohammed Hussain, who claimed to be 115. "He was dying. Everyone had gone to his house to say goodbye that morning. Twenty people died in that one house." A few moments later, the bitterness has gone and he is overcome with remorse. "I'll tell you the secret of our village," he says. "Some of us were rich and we lived in the city and we never took care of this place and the people we left here. If I was in a car, I wouldn't stop to pick people up. This is our punishment."
After a couple of hours, we round the final spur and Kamal Kote is before us. A valley of yellow rice terraces juts out over the Jhelum valley below and runs like a scale to the base of precipitous peaks above us. Cicadas are singing in the golden sunset. There are cedars and apple trees and clusters of big houses with handsome shiny metal roofs. But something's not right. There are deep cracks on the path we're on. Dust is swirling around the mountainsides above us. And a closer look at what we thought were houses reveals they're shiny metal roofs sitting at crazy angles on piles of rocks. The clusters are where roofs have fallen on top of each other into ravines, like a tangle of crashed silver kites.
Tawoos takes us to one of the few buildings left standing, the police station, where he says we can spend the night. The small group of officers describes how they alone have been tending the wounded, clearing the landslides and extracting the dead. The land we are standing on, they explain to the accompaniment of frequent shaking aftershocks, was the epicenter. Muzzafarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir where at least11,000 people are feared dead, is just a mile away over the mountains as the crow flies.
"We've buried 250 dead bodies," says one officer. "Everywhere around us: in people's gardens, in their fields, in any spare patch of earth. And there's 67 more we know of still under the rubble. And then there's all the soldiers." He points to the ridge line which encircles Kamal Kote and which marks the heavily fortified Line of Control separating Indian and Pakistani Kashmir. "Hundreds of dead bodies," he says. "Thousands. They're surrounding you." And by candlelight, he finds us a place to sleep on the soft, shaking earth.