November Issue 2005

By | News & Politics | Published 18 years ago

The last time Zaheer Abbasi visited his native village of Bandi in Azad Kashmir, it was for his younger brother’s wedding. This time, it was to bury him, his wife and seven-month-old baby.

Choking back tears, Zaheer recalls the recovery of their entombed bodies, crushed under the weight of the ceiling and the overhead water tank. “We pulled them out by breaking through the tank. He was lying on his side, and his wife was crouching, cradling the baby against her chest.” A patch cleared in the mass of rubble marks the place where they died. Zaheer points to a spot below, by the side of the house. “My mother was found there. She was sitting and reading the Quran after saying her morning prayers. She died too,” he says, his eyes distant.

We’re standing on the roof of his brother’s house. Cracked in several places through the centre like an eggshell, it’s now almost level with the ground floor. All around lie the shattered remains of what was once a compound with family residences. It looks as if a giant fist had repeatedly slammed down into the buildings. Vestiges of daily life amidst the mass of jagged concrete slabs and buckled structures assume a poignance their ordinariness wouldn’t otherwise merit — a saucepan with remnants of breakfast inside, a ceiling fan almost scraping the floor, a naked light bulb defiantly intact amid the turmoil.

We pick our way through the rubble towards the front porch. Kneeling down, one can see the foyer, its ceiling skimming the indoor plants against the walls. Outside, a Land Rover jeep lies crumpled under the debris. Picking up a piece of wood panelling, Zaheer says with a sad smile, “Even when he was a little boy, my brother, Hafeez, was very fond of beautiful houses. He’d supervised every aspect of this house during construction and used this wood panelling as part of the interior decor. He lavished particular care on the room he constructed at the top of the house for himself and his bride — and that same room has taken his life.”

When news of the earthquake first reached him, Zaheer was thousands of miles away in London, his home for the past seven years, where he owns a mini-supermarket. “My family and I were just going to bed after sehri when I got a phone call from an acquaintance, telling me there had been an earthquake in Kashmir,” he said. “We turned on the television and the initial reports were coming in. But at that point I just kept telling myself ‘it can’t be so bad’, even when I was called by a niece in Bandi who told me that many of our family members were trapped under the ruins of their homes. It was only when I reached here the next day that I realised….”

Utter devastation awaited him. His mother’s body had been prepared for burial. Afterwards Zaheer, along with other relatives, managed to pull out some relatives alive. By then evening had fallen, so they waited until dawn to recover the bodies of his younger brother and his family, knowing they had died almost instantly the morning before.

So far, Zaheer has lost 24 members of his family in the earthquake. With news still awaited from others in nearby villages, the final toll could be even higher. One nephew never returned from school; his body is yet to be recovered from underneath its rubble. A cousin’s wife was visiting relatives in a nearby village when the earthquake occurred. Most of the village was swept into oblivion by the apocalyptic landslides that followed. She hasn’t been seen since.

Those whose close relatives had been killed didn’t stand a chance if they lay trapped under the debris. “Everyone was frantically searching for their own,” says Zaheer. “We were using whatever tools we could lay our hands on to dig through the rubble hoping to find family members alive.” A little way down the mountainside is a girls’ private school. For two days, say villagers, the cries of the 10 students and their teacher could be heard from within. Then, there was silence. Now, rescue workers are on the roof, trying to break through. But, on day five, the staccato pounding of a sledgehammer has a forlorn air about it.

Bandi was home to Zaheer for 28 years, before he moved to London. Each nook and cranny, each winding mountain path, is familiar territory. Each house vested with the memories of holidays, weddings, family reunions, births and burials. He points out fields where he and childhood friends would play. Several tents have been pitched here by homeless residents of Bandi.

At first, it seems surprising how keen everyone is to talk about the awful events of October 8; they guide visitors through the wreckage of their homes, reliving the day it all happened. But perhaps this is sheer catharsis, an effort to come to terms with what seems scarcely comprehensible.

Zaheer takes me to the school where he studied as a boy. Like so many thousands of others across the region, it became a tomb for the scores of children inside. “Many of these children lived in the area destroyed by landslides. Their parents had died, so no one came to even look for them,” he says. Across the playground, a jagged rupture in the earth bears witness to the savage forces unleashed miles below on that fateful day.

We walk back to where the remaining members of the family shelter under a tent pitched in a small, manicured patch of lawn, surrounded by a sea of broken concrete. Zaheer invites me to sit with them. “Until a few days ago, we could have seated 100 people inside this house, but now…,” he says softly, his eyes welling up. “Now everything is finished.”