After 72 hours, hope rapidly fades of finding anyone buried alive after an earthquake. Yet more than four days after a massive temblor leveled the Pakistani town of Muzaffarabad, workers pounded a hole in a collapsed house and, to their amazement, out crawled five-year-old Zarabe Shah. Her shiny red dress and spiky hair were caked in dust, and she was scared and thirsty, but otherwise Zarabe was unhurt. By then, even her mother had given up hope, and had left the ruins of Muzaffarabad, a once-boisterous river town of some 150,000 that is the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir, to grieve elsewhere for her lost daughter.
Zarabe won her race against time, but for millions of others the race to survive is just beginning. Any large-scale natural disaster poses enormous logistical problems, but the 7.6-magnitude earthquake that hammered northern Pakistan and India on Oct. 8 is especially challenging. In Pakistan, which bore the brunt of the damage, officials expect the final toll to exceed 50,000 dead, with many thousands injured and some 2 million people made homeless. In India, the quake killed 1,300 and left at least 100,000 without shelter. Many victims were childrenthe quake struck as kids were in their morning classes, in shabbily built schools that crumbled like sand castles during the first shock waves, crushing thousands of boys and girls. "A whole generation has been lost," laments Pakistani army spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan.
The quake has generated severe political aftershocks that will continue to jolt the region for months to come. So far, there is no sense that a shared tragedy is going to enhance the likelihood of India and Pakistan learning to live in peace. And worryingly, Islamic radical groups were the first to bring aid to Pakistani villages, which may boost their popularityand undermine the position of Washington's embattled moderate ally, President Pervez Musharraf. True, aid is pouring in, especially on the Pakistani side of the border. But getting food, medicine and tents to remote yet heavily populated mountainous regions is a daunting task. Soon the snows will come, bringing more misery to those who have little shelter.
The relief effort is complicated by politics. Most of the destruction took place in Kashmir, a stunningly beautiful land of rivers, lakes and valleys wracked by decades of conflict and tragedy. India and Pakistan each control part of Kashmir, separated by a de facto border called the Line of Controlbut both claim all of it. The two nuclear rivals have fought twice over the disputed territory, and nearly went to war again in 2002. Along the Line of Control, Indian and Pakistani armies face off across minefields and a maze of trenches, sometimes just a few hundred yards from each other's guns. New Delhi accuses Islamabad of using Islamic militants based on the Pakistani side of Kashmir as proxy fighters. To date, the conflict has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Kashmiris. If the border were open, say relief officials, aid could reach disaster victims much quicker.