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Destruction on a Kashmir Lifeline

The road leading to a quake-ruined city in Pakistan has become an obstacle course as convoys rush to aid desperate survivors.

October 17, 2005|Carol J. Williams and Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writers

ALONG THE JHELUM VALLEY ROAD, Pakistan -- The sign welcoming visitors to Kashmir couldn't be more truthful: "See Nature Unveiled."

This valley in the Himalayan foothills was literally shaken to pieces by the magnitude 7.6 earthquake that struck Oct. 8. The power of the temblor cleaved whole villages from the mountainsides, flattened 200,000 homes and transformed this route to the devastated city of Muzaffarabad into a crowded obstacle course of landslides, caved-in tunnels and boulders the size of houses.

The road is a tableau of bereft survivors on the move and Pakistani and foreign aid convoys on their way to help them.

"Big trucks, small trucks, [nongovernmental organizations], individuals," said truck driver Arshad Mahmoud, returning Sunday morning from a goodwill trip to Muzaffarabad. "The roads are terrible, and the poor people are waiting for relief."

A journey to the capital of the Pakistani-controlled portion of Kashmir reveals seemingly endless testament to the scope of the disaster.

Two women, their coarse shawls drenched by a relentless rain, stand beside the road at the foot of a goat track that descends from the hills. Half the road's pavement has been washed away, taking with it a bus stop that used to be here. Looking lost, the women clutch plastic-covered blankets, apparently handed out from a passing convoy.

Extended families driving herds of goats and cattle brave the constant two-way traffic as they walk down the mountain toward lowland camps for the displaced.

Buses and trucks laden with sacks of flour and cases of water careen around hairpin turns, listing precariously. The brilliantly decorated trucks, covered with swirling patterns, inlaid tin and religious iconography, lend a weirdly festive air, like Mardi Gras floats rumbling through muddy misery. Young men swathed in blankets ride atop like elephant jockeys.

Halfway between Murree and Muzaffarabad, a slab of river rock placed on the road warns motorists of an overturned bus around the next sharp corner. A dead cow across the road explains the mishap.

Landslides have been cleared from most of the road, but collapsed retaining walls run with mud and stones in the fresh rainfall. Deep fissures in the road have filled with water, threatening to shear off more chunks of the vital passage, which in places has already been hacked to little more than a car's width.

Farther north, a Nissan truck, its load stacked twice as high as the width of its chassis and held in place by wooden walls, is stuck in the remaining lane of a tunnel. It takes two policemen, dozens of onlookers offering advice and 30 minutes of effort before the driver hammers off a wooden parapet that has snagged on the tunnel's jagged earthen ceiling.

The truck lumbers out of its dark confinement past a mile-long line of impatient motorists waiting to take the tunnel in the other direction. They register their anger with a symphony of horn honking and hand gestures.

Just beyond the tunnel, a red floral quilt covers the body of a young woman laid out on the roadside under the open tailgate of an army truck. Her dainty feet protrude from the shroud, pointing skyward.

Across the Jhelum River, renowned for its crystal-blue water before the quake turned it to a turgid brown torrent, vast gouges on the mountain slopes mark the paths of mudslides that have taken out hundreds of highland villages above the valley. Steep trails on the east side carry streams of survivors seeking help from the parade of aid convoys. The absence of stragglers on the west suggests that few people on that side lived.

Along the cratered, rock-strewn roadway, desperate people converge on trucks that are forced to stop where the surface narrows to one lane. Survivors such as Chaudhry Farzoddin, who had walked 40 miles from the village of Chinari, want tents and blankets to take back to the homeless, who face hypothermia and pneumonia. The truck they have besieged is carrying only water, and disappointment is etched on their faces.

At the beginnings of Muzaffarabad, the road narrows once more with the encroachment of collapsed buildings and newly pitched tents. At the Sangam Hotel, rounded balconies that once overlooked the bustling main street are collapsed onto one another like nested teacups.

Deluged by morning rains and with temperatures dropping into the 40s, the displaced huddle under the eaves of the few surviving storefronts or crawl into the rubble to escape the downpour. When the rain stops, they set trash on fire to warm themselves, sending palls of smoke over the dank landscape.

As the afternoon sun warms and dries the city, the odor of death rises from the ruins, where thousands of bodies remain entombed. Pale-green surgical masks have been distributed to most survivors, but they do little to filter out the stench.

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