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In Pakistan Quake Zone, Echoes of New Orleans Emerge

Survivors at both disaster sites cope with staying alive and dealing with bureaucracy.

October 23, 2005|Robert Tanner | Associated Press Writer

BATTAL, Pakistan — They can smell the bodies. They haven't found them yet, but they're digging, heaving one rock at a time from a home that's now a grave.

Just steps down the narrow dirt lane lined with fallen stone houses, fragrant steam rises from a battered pot: potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and cilantro, boiling above a smoky wood fire.

That's the way forward now, death and life together, after the worst earthquake here in a century shattered huge swaths of South Asia.

More than 79,000 are believed dead, and more than 3 million homeless. The scope dwarfs the U.S. disaster in August, when Hurricane Katrina swept away parts of the Gulf Coast and flooded most of New Orleans, leaving more than 1,200 dead and displacing half a million.

Still, the parallels between the catastrophes are stunning -- the shuffling step of a single dazed survivor, the murmuring pleas of mobs of thousands left helpless, the piercing smell of rotting trash, the promises and failures of government struggling to respond.

"It's the same thing everywhere," said Dr. Imran Taj, leading a reporter through the jammed hallways of his hospital in Abbottabad. A kitten picked through garbage in a corner. A child bawled in fear of a shot. Taj began asking about earlier disasters and talk turned to New Orleans. "Even though your country is developed, the same thing happened.... People get afraid. They get confused. They're afraid to make decisions."

The mountains of northern Pakistan are a world away from the United States' Gulf Coast in more than miles. New Orleans and its dens of jazz, liquor and women seem like a far-off dream -- or, for the many devout Muslims here, a nightmare. In these mountain villages and valleys, liquor is shunned and women cover their hair, their arms, often even their faces except for a pair of huge, dark eyes.

The disasters too came from opposite ends of the elements -- Katrina from the mix of sea and sky; the earthquake from the land and the fires that burn deep beneath it.

But on the ground where men, women and children get through the day, those disasters met in the same place: misery. And the unstoppable push to move on from there.

Abdul Saboor's not sure where that might lead. For now, he's sitting on a fine wood chair on top of the tumbled-down rubble of his house. Below him, on the main street of his hometown Balakot, is chaos -- streams of people seeking medicine, shelter, food; loudspeakers blaring instructions; horns honking as relief trucks try to get through. The central city was leveled.

"I am just guarding my house because some money and valuables are buried beneath it," said Saboor, who used to run a small business selling car parts. "I have no idea what I do or where I go."

The desire of survivors to hold on to what they've got runs from Balakot to New Orleans. Here, most are staying near their homes and villages, living in tents or under plastic sheets.

In New Orleans, tens of thousands didn't leave in time -- ending up in the heat, without shelter or food or water. The elements took some lives among the elderly and ill, though it was the storm and the floods that killed most in Louisiana.

Here, the earthquake killed tens of thousands, but the threat now is cold and lack of treatment. Hundreds come in each day from remote villages, their wounds turning to gangrene.

The aftermath is already much crueler than it was in Louisiana, where people were displaced or in shock, but given shelter and some kind of help. Here, the wounds from falling homes and boulders are more grievous. Amputations are widespread. Winter, just weeks away, could kill thousands more as relief crews struggle with a logistical nightmare -- damaged mountain roads, rock slides, villages only reachable by foot or helicopter.

Among the stunned evacuees, though, one desire is universal -- the need to tell what happened to them, despite the daily demands of survival, rebuilding and mourning.

A conversation with one man on the street soon turns into a crowd, where everyone needs to recount their survival and their woe. Most want help; some are just curious. "Please?" "Sir?" Others grab an arm and demand that a visitor listen.

It was the same on the teeming, debris-filled street in front of New Orleans' convention center, where many in the crowd argued over whether a crew of cameramen and women should be allowed to photograph the body of a man who had died and been left outside. Some angrily said it was disrespectful; others said no -- "They need to tell people what's happening here."

At a medical tent in Muzaffarabad in Kashmir, Qamar Qurashi felt the same way. He seized a reporter's shirt. "Listen! Listen! All the press are ignoring Leepa Valley," he shouted. The valley -- about 25 miles closer to the Line of Control that separates the divided region from India -- had more than 1,000 people killed and many more injured -- but if help doesn't get there within a week or two, the snow will close the roads for six months, he said.

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