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Kashmir Radio Channels Aid, Talk After Quake

A station suffered tragic losses but now reaches homeless survivors and devastated villages. Its air time is filled with dramatic accounts.

November 22, 2005|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan — The two men sat stiffly before a microphone inside a shack-turned-makeshift-sound studio, a humorless, Pakistani version of Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon.

"It's 5 p.m. and this is Radio Muzaffarabad," began Fida Kazimi in his native Urdu, his delivery monotone. "This is the news from the earthquake zone."

Dressed in a woolen peasant cap and jacket, Kazimi reported on newly opened roads, relief distribution and clinic hours as his partner, Abdul Rahman, punctuated every dead space with "Gi, gi, gi," or "Yes, yes, yes."

Emanating from the capital of the Pakistani-held portion of Kashmir, which was mostly destroyed by last month's magnitude 7.6 earthquake, Radio Muzaffarabad has provided victims with a vital link to the outside world and informed them of the availability of critical services. The catastrophe killed an estimated 87,000 people and left 3.2 million homeless.

With its signal going out to tent cities and isolated mountain villages, received by battery-powered radios donated by aid groups, the tiny station reaches tens of thousands of quake survivors who have responded with about 100 calls a day, either seeking help or giving thanks.

"We need this station -- no, we desperately need it," said Mubashir Hussain, a 24-year-old who visited the station's hilltop site. "In my tent camp, we listen to the station every day. People have lots of time."

Dr. Naveed Mirza, who works with a relief group, agreed. "We can't get to every tent camp or village. But a radio signal can get there."

Along with an adjacent television complex, the radio station's studios were leveled in the Oct. 8 temblor, which killed 26 of its 80 employees. It also toppled a transmitter and left most of the station's recording equipment buried in the rubble.

But the station quickly returned to the air with equipment borrowed from its parent group, government-run Radio Pakistan. "We started from zero, or minus 10 -- we had nothing," said Mohammed Bilal, a 25-year-old producer from nearby Peshawar who volunteered to help restart the station.

Like other employees, Bilal lives in a tent near the sheet-metal studio that -- along with a 750-foot radio tower -- was trucked in along treacherous mountain roads.

Bilal and others dug through the wreckage to salvage a few microphones, an ancient reel-to-reel recorder, computer parts and an old generator.

Fifteen days after the quake, Radio Muzaffarabad was up and running, broadcasting in English and Urdu as well as dialects such as Kashmiri, Gojiri and Pahari. Although the station once boasted a broadcast range of 100 miles, stretching into India, the smaller tower covers only 30 square miles.

Broadcast time has also been cut, from 17 to 11 hours a day. The station goes silent for three hours each afternoon, allowing the generator to cool as workers check for frayed wiring. When it rains, the sound of the drops on the studio's tin roof can often be heard on the air.

Despite the hurdles, listeners are responding.

Radio Muzaffarabad receives calls from survivors who lack food, water and shelter. "One woman said her whole village was stranded," Bilal recalled. "Her desperation came right through the line. She said, 'We're dying out here.' "

People call from borrowed cellphones, often using calling cards distributed by relief groups. The station is not equipped to directly broadcast their calls, but the requests are transcribed and read on the air. Workers then try to contact the appropriate government or relief agency.

Radio Muzaffarabad rarely plays music these days. Rather, its programming is filled with madadgar, or help line segments.

There are daily interviews with local leaders and relief coordinators, who often drop in at the station unannounced, interrupting a scheduled show for an impromptu on-air chat.

"We've had psychologists discuss the fear of aftershocks," Bilal said. "People are also afraid of epidemics in the tent camps. So we brought in doctors to review the kinds of epidemics that are possible and what precautions to take."

Since suffering the loss of so many staffers, the station is short of newsreaders and reporters. So Bilal visits the camps and villages to produce reports on the damage.

He had his worst moment during an interview with an 11-year-old girl whose parents were dead and older brother missing. "She was badly wounded and could not walk, but she was holding up," Bilal recalled.

"But as she talked about how she could not return to school, she began to cry. I just let my recorder run. Later, her sobs filled the airwaves. It was a terrible thing to me, but I had to tell the story."

Bilal also looks for scoops. He tried to arrange an exclusive interview with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan during Annan's recent tour of Muzaffarabad. He didn't get the interview. In fact, he was lucky to get into the news conference.

"I almost didn't get press credentials," he said. "They needed a photo. I'm living in a tent. How could I come up with a photo?"

Still, the station takes credit for being among the first to report on the quake.

Employee Rafique Dhatti was at work that Saturday morning and quickly stumbled out of the wrecked station. He borrowed a stranger's cellphone and called the parent station with reports of the devastation, choking back tears as he filed.

"The situation was terrible -- my city was gone," he said. "It was also a big story."

Bilal says his station continues to serve its listeners despite the hardships. "The proof is the calls we get from devastated people who say, 'Thanks for being here.' "

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