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Last Updated: Sunday, 16 October 2005, 10:53 GMT 11:53 UK
Feeding the survivors during Ramadan

By Owen Bennett Jones
BBC News, Kashmir

The earthquake that hit India and Pakistan has killed at least 38,000 people and destroyed up to a million homes. Owen Bennett Jones travelled to one of the worst-hit regions in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and spoke to people trying to cope with the aftermath of the disaster.

Women in bag carrying water donated by local aid groups (Photo Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
In Pakistan even those who have little give to those who have less
Mandra Hussein had walked more than 40km by the time he reached Bagh.

An elderly man with a long white beard, deeply creased face and a flowing shalwar kameez, his clothes were threadbare and dusty.

And he was the bearer of bad news.

His village had been destroyed, there had been a heavy snowfall, the children were becoming ill.

He had made the long journey to raise the alarm.

Before setting off he had made good preparations.

He had written out everything that had happened on a few sheets of purple notepaper.

His idea was to give the document to someone in the army or perhaps to a newspaper, so that help would be sent.

He did not have much luck.

No-one was particularly interested in his pieces of paper.

Vague promises

He did manage to see a brigadier to explain everything, but the army man was overwhelmed. Many others from remote villages had similar stories.

Map of Pakistan and Kashmir

He just made some vague promises and, feeling sorry for the old man, gave him two small cartons of mango juice and that was it.

Despite the adversity he faced, Mandra Hussein remained a very pious man.

The earthquake may have measured 7.6 on the Richter scale but it had not shaken his faith.

"Our village may have been destroyed but I give thanks to Allah," he told me, "for making the earthquake happen in the daylight hours, so that many people were out of their houses.

"Allah ensured that many of us survived."

Westernised approach

Another man brought to Bagh by the earthquake was a very different kind of Pakistani.

Time and again people told me the earthquake was Allah's will
With a striped polo-shirt, beige trousers and better English grammar than most people in the UK, Mohammed Mustafa had come not on foot, but by car.

He is a pretty westernised kind of guy.

Based in Islamabad, he had been told by his boss to go down to Kashmir to help the people there.

And he had made a pretty good job of it.

He set up a massive outdoor kitchen, cooking 1,200 meals a day for earthquake survivors.

From Mohammed Mustafa's point of view it was plain common sense.

Philanthropic culture

The people were hungry and he provided them with food. He was fulfilling his obligations as a Pakistani citizen and, for that matter, as a Muslim.

Survivors with injured children wait in Bagh to be evacuated by helicopter
Most of the buildings in Bagh have been destroyed

Pakistanis have a strong philanthropic culture. The rich (and even those that have little) often give to those who have less.

But this is Ramadan, the time of year that Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset.

And that is why Mohammed Mustafa ran into a problem.

Feeding 1,200 people with no kitchen requires a bit of preparation.

You need to light fires, boil rice and cook meat. It takes several hours. You have to get going in advance.

But one of the local mullahs did not see it that way and he paid Mohammed Mustafa a visit.

"What are you doing?" he shouted. "Don't you know it's Ramadan now? This is just not permitted.

"You can't cook food during the day. It's against Islam. Stop or I'll burn this place down - your tents, your pots, everything."

Waiting for sunset

Women and children at camp  (Photo: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
Thousands of women and children are in camps across the Bagh valley

It was a clash between two faces of Pakistan: the relatively secular, urban middle classes and the dogmatic religious purists who believe that Pakistan was created in the name of Islam and should stick to its precepts, however difficult the circumstances.

"Surely," Mohammed Mustafa argued, "if the people are hungry they must eat? Look, they're suffering. I'm a Muslim too. These people have nothing, they need this food."

It was a vitriolic exchange but, in classic Pakistani style, they eventually worked out a compromise.

"Cook in the day if you must," the mullah grumbled, "but if I see anyone here eating during daylight hours I'll be back and I'll set this place alight."

In fact, many of the earthquake victims are observing Ramadan.

Under their makeshift tents, they dutifully wait for the sun to go over the horizon before tucking into bread, dates and whatever else the aid trucks have brought in.

'God is punishing us'

I asked many people in Bagh why the earthquake had happened and time and again I was told it was Allah's will. "He's punishing us for our misdeeds," they said.

"But why would Allah kill children?" I asked.

"To teach us a lesson," one mullah told me, "that we may learn that we need to live better lives."

And then I saw a local man who clearly was not respecting Ramadan.

In the middle of the day he was casually drinking some juice and smoking - unusual.

We started chatting and I put the question to him: "Why did this happen?"

He was the only one who gave the answer that many in less devout countries would give in similar circumstances.

"Why?" he mused. "I can't really answer that. I guess it was just bad luck."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 15 October, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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