Earthquake Anger in Balakot

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When French rescue teams were first dropped in the Himalayan town of Balakot on Monday night, they appeared as bewildered and overwhelmed as Balakot's remaining survivors. Balakot had once been a hillside town of 20,000 people, but the earthquake has reduced it to a muddy smear. Ninety percent of its houses were obliterated. There were so few people left alive that sometimes, where you would expect to see a funeral procession, instead there would be a solitary man heading toward the graveyard, carrying on his shoulders the white shrouded body of his wife or child.

The French, with only 12 rescue workers and a couple of dogs, didn't know where to begin; everybody in Balakot was desperate for help. Finally, they chose to begin work at one of the town's elementary schools whose walls had collapsed at the first dreadful stirrings of the earthquake, trapping over a hundred kids inside. Their mangled bodies would slowly emerge, cradled in the arms of the rescue workers. The girls had worn green blouses, probably ironed that morning by their mothers; the boys wore gray. That night, three days after the temblor, the French managed to pull a five-year-old from the rubble. It appeared that the boy, Nawfiz Shah, suffered only mild injuries on his face and hands. But when I visited him the following day, living in a tent with his mother, I learned that Nawfiz was still so traumatized that after first crying out in terror at "the darkness," he had then stopped speaking altogether. His mother cannot tell whether Nawfiz understood when she told him that his older brother had died, entombed in the same school.

For 24 hours, the people of Balakot had no help at all from the outside world. Landslides had cut off the mountain roads. "For two days there were helicopters flying over us. We waved at them with red pieces of cloth, but they just went by," says Javed, a shopkeeper, whose son also died in the school collapse.

During that first day, the local rescue effort stalled because few people were left alive to claw through the rubble in search of their families. "There were no helping hands," says Mohammad Raees, 22, a shopkeeper. "You could find only one or two people at the collapsed houses, desperately asking others for help." But most were too busy with their own private tragedies to help.

Only on the second day after the quake, as news of Balakot's catastrophe spread down the valley, thousands of men from surrounding areas converged on the town carrying hammers, shovels, iron rods and axes after walking for miles and miles. The volunteers also helped clear the road into Balakot, making it possible for hundreds of pickups and cars to wend their way into the devastated town bringing food, blankets and tents. All were donations from Pakistanis who had seen photos of Balakot's disaster taken from army helicopters. The relief trucks were mobbed by hungry and cold people, prompting the panicked volunteers to heave out their aid packages and leave. Those who were too injured to fight their way to the trucks got nothing.

When the Pakistani army finally arrived on the third day, they found the local people furious over the delay. The soldiers were cursed, and at one school where 200 children lay buried under concrete slabs, the parents hurled stones at the troops as they tried, days too late, to clear away the rubble. By day four, enough troops had arrived to set up field clinics and start evacuating the injured by helicopter. Hundreds waited for evacuation, and each helicopter could carry only a few stretchers.

The news from the area may get worse: Some Pakistani officials are saying the death toll could exceed 50,000. Word is starting to reach Balakot from higher up in the Himalayas, where dozens of villages went tumbling down the mountainsides — it may take days, or even weeks, before rescuers can reach them.

In Balakot, I met a teacher, Said Rasool, who had come down from one of these villages to seek help. He was so dazed and desperate that, even four days after the earthquake, he still hadn't washed the blood of his students off his cream-colored trousers as he wandered from one cluster of soldiers to another, pleading that they come back to his village and help him dig out his students. But there was still too much work to be done in Balakot before the soldiers could follow the teacher up into the mountains. And by then, as the soldiers and the teacher know, there won't be anyone under the rubble who is still left alive.