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Joined by disaster

October 11, 2005

WINTER COMES BITTER AND EARLY in northern Pakistan, and never more so than this year. The earthquake that devastated the country Saturday left rescue officials weeping at their inability to free those trapped by rubble. According to the United Nations, the magnitude 7.6 temblor left more than 2.5 million people homeless, most in northern areas; Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, was reported to be 90% destroyed.

The devastation has taken at least 20,000 lives in Pakistan, leveling whole villages, and neighboring India reported more than 850 dead, many in the portion of Kashmir it controls. If there was any hope amid the ruins, it was that the quake has caused the two nations to temporarily set aside their mutual distrust and work together to find survivors.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf wasted no time in asking for aid, and soon found himself accepting tons of food, medicine, tents and other supplies from India. But Islamabad declined India's offer of helicopters, opting instead to accept eight that the United States sent from neighboring Afghanistan.

Pakistan is a Muslim nation, as is Indonesia, where last December's tsunami killed an estimated 200,000 people. Washington's response to both catastrophes was based on humanitarian need, not religion, and it gives the lie to the claim that the U.S. is anti-Muslim. The U.S. has also pledged up to $50 million in relief and reconstruction funds, and President Bush met with a top Pakistani diplomat in Washington on Sunday to assure him of U.S. help.

The United Nations said relief and recovery efforts are expected to last more than six months; reconstruction will take much longer, especially in rural areas that rescuers found difficult to reach because of earthquake-caused landslides. The stunning amount of damage and the need to rebuild means nations pledging aid will need to honor their commitments. The recovery also will provide an increased opportunity for India and Pakistan, which have been moving closer in recent years, to put aside their differences and help each other rebuild.

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