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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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Bound together by pain and prayers
When the land hummed like a train

I will never forget how the earth growled. Thinking that something had gone wrong with the steering or the wheels of the car, I pulled over to run a check.

Out of the car, I was dumbfounded: the landscape around me, dotted with a few buildings and surrounded by barbed wire, was rattling with a hum ' as if a train were steaming past.

Only later would I learn that Islamabad was tasting the aftermath of the severest earthquake to strike Pakistan’s capital.

The strong tremors lasted almost two minutes, and had within seconds forced thousands of scared government employees out in the open space from ministry buildings.

Never before had I seen such crowds outside private commercial plazas and government highrises; people knelt down, most of them reciting verses from the holy Quran, and looking up to the sky, as if asking for God’s mercy.

Even our two-storey building looked like a doll house during some of the aftershocks, with my wife spending most of the day out in the lawns.

But the agony and the test of our endurance of Mother Nature’s fury was longer than expected. As many as 41 aftershocks ' measuring between 5 and 6.5 on the Richter scale ' kept rattling Islamabad and Rawalpindi in the south. One of the tremors came as late as 10 hours after the first.

The worst, however, befell the inhabitants of the high-rise Margala Towers, a 10-storey apartment building that caved in during the first tremor, trapping more than a hundred people.

The scenes were quite harrowing, with a young boy caught between two crumbled blocks from the waist down and his relatives hugging him helplessly till army commandos came to his rescue.

By sunset, rescue teams were still struggling to cut through the piled-up blocks to the dozens of people stranded there.

While President Pervez Musharraf, who visited the site, said there might be 70-80 people still trapped under the debris, interior minister Aftab Shepao confirmed at least eight fatalities caused by the collapse of the building, located in one of the affluent sectors of Islamabad.

“It is a test for all of us. It is a test for me, of the Prime Minister, of the government and of the entire nation and I am sure we will succeed,” Musharraf said.

Experts questioned the quality of construction material used in the building.

“This is strange that some buildings and flats which are as old as 25 years survived the tremors but the tower that was constructed in the late 1990s could not,” said Tahira Raza, an Islamabad-based civil engineer.

The earthquake spread chaos in congested cities like Rawalpindi and Lahore, where early-morning traffic was brought to a halt.

People left their vehicles and ran. “I nearly lost control of the wheel as my car began to swing,” said Mohammad Iqbal, who was heading to his office in Islamabad when the quake struck.

Most of the fatalities occurred in northern Pakistan and Muzaffarabad, capital of Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

According to Azad Jammu and Kashmir officials, at least 250 people were killed after the quake hit Muzaffarabad. Among other worst-hit regions in Azad Kashmir were Balakot and Bagh districts as the tremors severely damaged villages along the Karakoram Highway that links Pakistan with China.

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