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EARTHQUAKE IN SOUTH ASIA

Southland Family Grieves for Dead, Missing Relatives

Riverside man plans to return to his devastated hometown in Pakistan to see if he can find his two brothers and help other family members.

October 10, 2005|Susannah Rosenblatt and Jason Felch | Times Staff Writers

After two days of frantic calls and agonizing waits by the phone, Hafiz U. Rahman and his wife, Shakila, grieved Sunday for six close relatives who died in the powerful earthquake that nearly leveled their hometown in Pakistan.

Rahman's 14-year-old nephew, Arbaz Rahman, was crushed to death when his school collapsed. Arbaz's father, the principal of a different village school, is missing. Rahman's uncle, Ajaz Yousaf, a 45-year-old biology professor, also died.

But with scores of family members and friends still missing, what frightens the Riverside couple even more are the untold casualties that they might confront in the coming days.

The lack of communication is "actually more painful" than learning of a loved one's death, said Hafiz Rahman, 53, a former physics professor who now imports and exports goods. "At least if somebody dies [you can] accept the destiny of God. If you don't know, it's more painful."

Since learning of the quake on a Pakistani news channel late Friday night, the couple have been frantically calling home to Muzaffarabad, the capital of the Kashmir state in northern Pakistan, which was near the epicenter of the magnitude 7.6 temblor.

Both of their extended clans -- 300 or 400 households -- all live in or around the city of about 150,000 that sits at the confluence of two rivers and is girded by lush green mountains, where many hillside villages of adobe huts were completely flattened.

The last time the Rahmans could get through on their phone to Muzaffarabad was Saturday morning, and that call was cut short when a magnitude 6 aftershock rattled their relatives at the end of the line.

Shakila Rahman said one of her cousins was killed, as well as three children of another cousin. She believes at least 20 distant relatives on her mother's side also died.

Hafiz Rahman said he has not told his 70-year-old mother, Mahmooda Begum, that at least one of her 30 or 40 grandchildren had perished. She sat quietly on the Rahmans' living room couch Sunday -- in the United States on one of her annual visits -- her forehead furrowed with wrinkles of anxiety about her seven children in Muzaffarabad.

"My desire is that they all are alive," Begum said through a translator, her voice mournful and her eyes cast upward as she asked Allah to keep her children safe. "Houses can be replaced; life cannot be replaced."

Begum said she cannot even feel the usual hunger pangs of the Ramadan fast because she is so worried.

Hafiz Rahman, who emigrated to the United States in 1985, is planning to return home later this week, although the two roads into town are now blocked in several places, he said.

"Nobody knows who died, who survived," he said, but he is determined to return home to locate his two missing brothers and help those family members he can.

Fellow worshippers at their Riverside mosque, as well as the several hundred local Pakistani families in the area, have already raised $20,000 for Rahman to bring to the earthquake victims, said Mohammed Ashrif, 34, chairman of the board of directors of the Riverside Islamic Center, a large area mosque.

The organization hopes to collect $50,000 by the end of the week, Ashrif said.

Helping out in a disaster is an important obligation in Islam. "The only thing we can do is comfort each other," he said.

Other families are likewise trying to find out the fate of relatives and friends.

"People are in a state of shock," said Dr. Mohammed Aslam, president of the Pakistan Society of Southern California. "They're trying to find out what's going on."

Mansoor Shah, a Lakewood physician and leader in the Pakistani immigrant community, brought together a group of local Pakistani groups Sunday night to discuss relief efforts.

Shah said he is still trying to learn the fate of more than a dozen schools for girls in the hard-hit northern region that were supported by Developments in Literacy Inc. The group was launched in 1997 by Shah's wife, Fiza, and a number of other local Pakistani women to educate girls in the poorest communities in Pakistan.

Shah said no one has been able to get to the area in the frontier where the schools are located because the roads are torn apart. "It's devastating," he said.

Southern California's Pakistani community of about 50,000 is spread out in communities across the Southland, with pockets of concentration in Culver City and Orange County, said Ahmad Farooq, Pakistan's vice consul in Los Angeles.

"The majority do not come from the affected area, but they feel it nevertheless," he said. The Pakistani Consulate has set up a bank account for people who wish to make monetary donations for disaster relief. The money will go to buy supplies and rehabilitation for victims, Farooq said. To make a donation, contact the consulate at (310) 441-5145 or (310) 446-6695.

Relief International, a Westwood based relief agency, immediately deployed eight members of its Afghanistan team to the Kashmir region to deliver relief and supplies, said the group's president, Farshad Rastegar.

"It's your typical Third World disaster scenario, with whole villages destroyed at 90% or above," said Rastegar, whose group specializes in the transition from relief to development.

"Winter cold is approaching fast. The immediate task is recovery, but the major challenge will be providing decent shelter to people over the next few weeks and months ahead."

Donations to Relief International can be made by calling (800) 573-3332 or visiting www.ri.org.

Hafiz Rahman looks at his coming trip home with an unusual sense of dread.

"This time it's not a pleasant journey," Rahman said of his journey to Muzaffarabad, in whose outskirts corn, wheat and rice farmers have lived for generations in modest mountainside villages.

"Most beautiful part of the world I've ever seen," Rahman said. "I don't know what's happened to that beauty now."

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Times staff writers Evelyn Iritani and Charles Ornstein contributed to this report.

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