The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Flight for life, from classrooms and bunkers

People jumped off buildings, troops climbed out of bunkers and ran, and schoolchildren dashed out of examination halls.

But as the walls shook around him and the windowpanes splintered, 70-year-old Haji Abdul Rahim began reciting verses from the Quran.

For a full four minutes, the world heaved around him and his family in this north Kashmir town, 55 km from Srinagar. His wife and two daughters had scurried on to an open field, but Haji maintained a stoic calm.

For him, the predicted doomsday had arrived.

“The verses of the Quran say a massive earthquake would shake the world on that day; and what could be more massive than this one,” Haji later told The Telegraph, raising his arms in prayer to Allah.

“All of us must return to the Creator one day, and this day had looked ominous enough for the prediction to come true.”

Schoolboy Umi Hanny, however, knew nothing about the predictions. To him it was a shock. “I was writing my exams and the answer sheet slipped to the floor before I had realised what was happening. Then I fell down from my bench. I managed to get up and ran.”

It was not only the ordinary folk who rushed out of their homes; paramilitary troops deployed in the summer capital were seen abandoning their bunkers and sprinting out of buildings to avoid being trapped under the crumbling ceilings and shower of debris.

The two border districts of Baramulla and Kupwara took the brunt of the devastation. “See, so many houses have gaping cracks,” a senior police officer said.

It was the concrete structures that took the worst of the beating; the old-fashioned mud houses fared somewhat better.

This evening, the sub-district hospital here was crammed with the injured, brought in from Uri ' which is almost flattened ' and the villages. The army is assisting the doctors.

Several hundred townspeople camped outside the hospital, and the police had to blow whistles to clear the main entrance every time an ambulance arrived from Uri.

Jameel Ahmed, a young man from Deragutli in Uri, is badly injured. His mother Sakina, tears streaming down her face, said: “We had never seen an earthquake like this one, no one in Kashmir had.

“I rushed out but my son just jumped from the window. The neighbours helped me bring him to hospital.”

Jameel’s father Sahi Khan, who was in nearby Rampur, said: “Everything was swaying. I saw huge rocks hurtle down the mountains as the earth shook. It’s the worst earthquake I have seen.”

As aftershocks continued through the day, residents stayed on edge. Even a mild tremor sent everyone dashing for the open. All traffic has halted in Srinagar and other Valley towns.

Officials in Srinagar took time to calibrate their response as reports of house collapses and loss of life poured in from north Kashmir, Baramulla and Kupwara. Most officials had no idea of the toll.

The authorities are now gearing up for a massive relief and rescue operation, but landslides in the remote Tangdhar village and the closure of the Srinagar-Uri road owing to falling boulders and huge cracks on the ground are likely to hobble their efforts.

The helicopters hovering over the capital are a constant reminder of the magnitude of the disaster and the scale of the rescue operations needed.

“Allah saved us today. This massive earthquake caused less damage than what could be expected. Each tremor brought back memories of the Gujarat earthquake,” Haji said softly, as if speaking to himself.

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