MUZAFFARABAD: “SAVE me, Abbu, Ammi. Please help me come out.” As long as I am alive, these painful words uttered by Umair Maqbool, the brilliant 18-year-old son of my maternal uncle, will continue to haunt me. Umair was shouting from beneath the huge concrete mass of his house that had collapsed moments after the earthquake struck Muzaffarabad and adjoining areas on Oct 8.

Umair was not alone; his elder brother Junaid was also trapped in an adjacent room. On top of the rubble were my uncle and aunt, who were shouting for help which was nowhere in sight. With a small pickaxe, the couple started to dig.

Back in my neighbourhood — Madina Market — the scene was not different. I was in my bedroom on the third floor of my two- marla house when an unusually horrible sound awoke me from deep sleep. I saw my airconditioner had fallen out; the ceiling fan was swinging wildly and the walls creaking.

While I was debating about whether to go out or remain indoors, my younger brother, Asif, came upstairs, shouting that I should leave the room instantly. I went down to the living room on the second floor where my mother, my younger sister and our six-year old nephew were huddled together. Suddenly, there was a big bang. A house on our right collapsed, burying several pedestrians. We decided that we should stay inside.

As the severity of the jolts subsided, we decided to go out. But another problem awaited us on the first floor where my youngest brother Zeeshan was locked inside the sitting room as the doors had jammed. Frustrated, we started hitting the door, and it swung open after five or six kicks. We went out on the street only to see the sprawling commercial hub of the AJK metropolis reduced to nothing. Every building on both sides of the street had crashed. Our house did not collapse, but wide cracks had developed in it.

The whole market, from one end to the other, echoed with painful screams and moans. A young neighbour of mine was lying dead in a pool of blood, crushed by a concrete slab. Another neighbour stood with bleeding wounds. He was in bed when the quake struck, pulling down the house, but miraculously he fell on the road with his 14-month old daughter tightly held in his arms. However, he could not save his wife who was hit by a big concrete slab. His mother was missing and there was no clue as to where she had disappeared under the rubble. Another neighbour’s elder son was recovered alive after seven hours, but a younger one who had returned from Srinagar by the trans-LoC bus only two days ago could not be traced for the next four days.

Our house had tilted to the right. It was the house which we had constructed six years ago by pooling all our savings. Homelessness which had haunted my late father for several years after his migration to this part of Kashmir from Srinagar in 1956 seemed to be our lot again.

But our personal trauma paled into insignificance after watching the magnitude of losses suffered by other residents of the town. After taking my family to an open field, we brothers rushed to our uncle’s house to check if everything was all right there. We heard Umair’s shouts, but could do nothing to help. Another nephew who was rescued with his left foot crushed and profusely bleeding. We removed him to the Combined Military Hospital which itself was devastated. There was no doctor. Some paramedics were present but they were unable to cope with the complex injuries. Medicines were also missing. We took him to the army stadium at around 4 pm in an official four-wheeler which was forcibly stopped. However, the army stadium also presented chaotic scenes as it lacked qualified doctors.

Back at his devastated house, hopes of recovering his brother Umair alive had faded, and as darkness spread amid aftershocks, his parents were also taken to the open field. The nephew’s body was retrieved the following morning after some labourers were hired by his father. There were tens of hundreds of such cases in every nook and corner of the town. Take, for instance, Tufail Ganai, studying aeronautical engineering at the PAF academy. He had arrived home for a day, but met the fate of my nephew. A brother of five sisters, Ganai had remained alive for 24 hours and, when all hope of getting out had vanished, he had asked his family to leave the area for their own safety.

On the first day of the tragedy, as I moved around in the old city, everyone who knew I was a journalist rushed towards me asking why the army had not come to their rescue. I had no answer to the questions. However, two days later, the army rose to the situation and launched a relief and rescue drive on a massive scale, which was continuing when these lines were written.

In those hours of grief and agony, one thing which evoked every Muzaffarabad resident’s wrath was the poor telecommunication system thrust upon the people of the region by the Pakistan Army’s subsidiary, the Special Communications Organization (SCO) against their will. The utility’s mobile phone network, SCOM, which has a coverage of only five kilometres in Muzaffarabad, failed to provide any relief to the quake-stricken families whose relatives and well-wishers across the world were desperate to learn of their welfare. Since most people had to leave their houses, the only option available was mobile phones, but these worked erratically. The service lacks SMS facility. Had the government allowed multinational mobile phone companies operating in Pakistan to launch their services in this part of Kashmir as well, at least this problem could have been averted.

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