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August Musings

Ilona Yusuf

The massive explosion on August 4 in Beirut brought to associate editor Ilona Yusuf’s mind another sudden and horrifying disaster: the earthquake of 2005 in North Pakistan.

earthquake, 7.8, islamabad & northern pakistan, 8.49-8.55 a m and 9.20 a m

we were used to earthquakes

in the high narrow valleys

and the plains

even the flat punjab

rocking like a cradle.

when the quake struck,

we thought it would be seconds


sky clear and sun diamond bright

un-noted the still quiet of birds animals…

driving to the hospital

in a burst of jubilation

windows down

aretha franklin blaring


then suddenly liquid lurching walls

unceasing swinging

rocking and creaking

of walls and light shafts

then eerie rumbling

in the courtyard

among staff and patients

one of them with dials and wires

taped to his chest

overcome a sweeperess

pointing her broom to the sky

praying for forgiveness

and looking down at us

from the maternity ward

on the second floor

people standing

strangely still

In the afternoon two young air force pilots make a sally north over the Kashmir mountains. They fly over miles of wreckage before reaching the airport of Muzaffarabad. From the air it is a pile of rubble. Only the control tower stands out at the edge of the cracked runway, from which the controller frantically calls, come down, come down, help us, help us. As they circle to come in over the runway, they see people hobbling, limping, running across the tarmac towards them, limping, disheveled, bloodstained, some carrying the severed limbs of their loved ones in the hope that they can be stitched back on.

Muzaffarabad, Pakistan (Wikimedia Commons)

It is difficult to choose whom to take down to the capital, in an aircraft that can accommodate little more than five passengers. At the end, a little girl wrapped in a shawl puts out a hand and says, take me with you, please, take me. The pilots brush her off: she isn’t the only one, and she is not even wounded, even if she has nobody with her, because they have either perished or are lost. Suddenly she lifts her shawl. Her left arm beneath it is a bloody stump severed from the shoulder.

Returning supply trucks bring their stories. They have been looted. People come out of nowhere, in the dark. Climbing over the slow moving trucks they drag away bundles of anything they can grab, jumping off with their loot before the trucks can stop. Sometimes the trucks are stationary, waiting for army engineers who work like ants to put the road in order against the shuddering peaks that periodically send volleys of rocks and pebbles flying down their slopes.

People are sitting by the roadside. Mute, still, the stench of death around them. Refusing to eat, to make shelter for themselves. Refusing to bury their dead until they find white winding sheets.

The crew of a supply truck has been trying, tool-less, to move rubble and dig out survivors. They come upon a man standing by the edge of a steep ravine that drops to the river. He points to the river. His house, carrying his family, collapsed into it. As they stand speechless, the man leaps into the water.

Schools of children have died. Women at their daily household tasks, crouching over kerosene or wood stoves, or sweeping, have been buried in the rubble of their houses.

The men say, we saw the sky darken, we felt the first shudder. When we looked back, our houses were no longer standing.

The people do not want the many cases of water that have arrived. They have enough water, they say, pointing to the muddied river Neelum, named for the turquoise blue of its waters.


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