It was a Saturday and that too of Ramazan and my weekly day off from the BBC, Islamabad. I was jolted out of my bed by a strong quake at 8:50am. Soon after, news began flashing on TV screens about the Margalla Towers apartment building, which had collapsed. I rushed to the location, only to find my colleagues already there, so I returned home. The death toll was 20 by then.

It was around 11am that I received a call summoning me to the BBC office immediately.

I arrived to find a car ready to take me to the northern areas which were believed to have been affected. But no one had any idea about the scale of devastation, since the communications infrastructure had completely broken down.

So I left for the north that fateful afternoon, little knowing that I would end up reporting to the world the devastation of Balakot, which lost 10,000 people on Oct 8, 2005. Nobody in government had the slightest of idea at the time about the massive death toll here.


At a crossing,the injured and the dead lay together; people died in front of my eyes


The devastation started becoming visible from Abbottabad where I stopped to buy some iftari. Most people pointed me towards Mansehra.

I dumped my plans for iftari and rushed towards Mansehra, where the main district hospital had accommodated twice its capacity of the injured and dead. Makeshift camps had been set up near the hospital. There, many people told me that the worst-hit town was Balakot. But the road from Mansehra onwards was destroyed. So I decided to walk.

I joined a group of volunteers who were also heading towards Balakot. It was pitch dark by the time we reached our destination. Almost all the houses had collapsed and thousands were under the rubble.

At a crossing,the injured and the dead lay together; people died in front of my eyes. One of the local leaders told me that no help was available.

Many people asked me that if I could reach Balakot, why couldn’t rescue teams and the military? I had to lie that they would come very soon, despite knowing nothing about any rescue plans.

As I started to take a round of the city, a group of parents led me to what they said was the local college, which had been buried during the earthquake. All I could see was a bigpiece of concrete on the ground. It was the ceiling of the building. The local people were desperately trying to cut through it with anything they could find, even stones, but to no avail. I could hear students crying for help. As I tried to get closer to the concrete, a woman shouted: “Come back. My child is inside.” I stepped back immediately; the shout still echoes in my head.

The next few hours were hell. I kept recording the desperate calls of survivors. Then I left for Mansehra, went back to Islamabad, reported about the quake and left for Balakot again in the morning.

Even then, no rescue teams had arrived, though people from nearby towns were arriving with food, clothes and medicine. A batch of military men came to examine the devastation. People ran towards them,pleading with them to dig out their loved ones – some of them could still be alive.

But they were told flatly that this team was here only to survey, and help would follow after they made their report. People got angry and started shouting slogans that soon turned into cries of mourning as the military men returned to their base camp in Abbottabad without doing much that day.

Months after the quake, the then government announced plans for setting up ‘New Balakot city’ andreserved land for it, too. Ten years later, very few have opted to relocate. Today, life goes on in Balakot as usual, with residents welcoming tourists with open arms. These travellers stop at Balakot for midway snacks or lunch on their way to Naran.

That assignment made me emotionless for life.

There can’t be a bigger tragedy than the earthquake which resulted in the death of more than 70,000 people. I told many more stories later, about the merciless killings by terrorists in Swat, Fata and Islamabad, without my face twisting. Such is the life of a reporter in Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, October 8th, 2015

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