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Last Updated: Monday, 17 October 2005, 15:17 GMT 16:17 UK
Balakot diary: Vision of hell
Main road into Balakot
The first site of a shattered town (all pictures by Andrew North)
The BBC's Andrew North was one of the first reporters to arrive in the Pakistani town of Balakot in North West Frontier Province, one of the areas worst-affected by the recent earthquake.

Here he looks back at five days of reporting from the ruins of the town with producer Cara Swift, translator Jamal Shahid and driver Farouk.


Hundreds of people streaming towards us, over the landslides blocking the road. Many struggling under the weight of their dead, in makeshift stretchers. Many injured with bloodied bandages. And at the roadside - flattened buildings, the remains of Balakot.

That was our first sight of this shattered town. No one is helping us, people told us, many in tears. We're leaving to find food and water.

It was mid-afternoon. We were surprised to be there so quickly. Less than 18 hours before, myself and Cara Swift had been in London.

We set off soon after landing in Islamabad. But with the landslides we were hearing about and the relief traffic we expected, we thought it would take hours. Yet there were hardly any vehicles on our side of the road. It was all coming the other way - survivors fleeing.

Burying the dead in Balakot
This family buried 22 of their relatives
We drive as far as we can and start broadcasting. Of course we look kind of official, with our satellite dish on the vehicle roof. People approach, asking for food, medicine, anything.

There's no one else to ask, Pakistani military or civilian officials, or relief workers.

It's a dreadful dilemma. We only have minimal supplies. We don't know how long we'll be here before we get back-up. We give biscuits to a few children.


It may sound strange. But you think strange things at times like this. As I walked into Balakot that morning I found myself thinking of the endless opening sequence in that Orson Welles film - A Touch of Evil

You get a snapshot of everything that's going on as the camera moves across the Mexican border town where it's set. That is what we had as we approached the town centre.

A family sleeping rough next to the ruins of their home. Then another. Next, two men digging graves just metres from the roadside.

Three bodies covered with white sheets beside them. Then Balakot hospital, completely destroyed, beds poking from the ruins. Beyond, in every direction, destruction.

Balakot bazaar
The main bazaar - 80% of the buildings are flattened
People were digging and pulling at the rubble. We'd walked in with many of them, climbing over the landslides blocking the way. Some were survivors coming back, others volunteers from nearby villages. Some with picks and shovels. But most using just their bare hands.

We set up on a patch of grass amid the remains of the main boys school. This became BBC Balakot. Hundreds of boys died in the collapsed buildings around us. People are pulling bodies out all the time. And later that day, volunteers start digging up the playground for a mass grave.

As evening falls, I walk up the hill in the middle of Balakot, where there were two more schools. They are talking about the lost generation here. These were bigger buildings than the boys school, made of big slabs of concrete. Now they're a pancake of rubble.

There were 200 girls and boys in that one, says one man, maybe 300 in the other.

On the hillside opposite, a scene that conjured up images of medieval plagues. Green grass, somehow luminous in the twilight. Tall, slender pine trees. And between them, bodies everywhere, covered with white sheets. Men digging graves beside them. There already was a small cemetery here. Now it covers the whole hillside. I find one family burying 22 relatives here.

I feel helpless. I'm just a journalist, I tell them. You must tell the world, they say
Suddenly, I'm surrounded. Men who've just buried their loved ones. They're angry, some crying. One man shouting almost in my face. Where is the government, where is the army? They're doing nothing, nothing. His voice gets louder and closer. The others join in, in broken English. No help, nothing. They condemn the Pakistani leader, General Pervez Musharraf.

I feel helpless. I'm just a journalist, I tell them. You must tell the world, they say. I feel a little shaken as I head back down the hill to our campsite.

But they're right. There is no sign of any organised aid effort yet. Volunteers have been arriving, bringing in blankets, clothes, food and water by road. But it's not coordinated. Pakistani helicopters have been landing. But there's no sign of the supplies they're bringing being distributed. Thousands will sleep in the open for a third night.


We wake up soon after first light. Across the river - the bridges survived - I find an exhausted team of French rescue workers.

Using dogs and specialist equipment, they'd found five children under the remains of the Shaheen school during the night. It's a dramatic rescue, a source of hope.

Makeshift clinic in Balakot
A basic clinic has been set up amidst the ruins
The four boys and one girl had survived in air pockets under the concrete slabs that had fallen on their class that Saturday morning. How many others, I wondered later, were still trapped alive under the ruins of Balakot, with no way of escape?

For the most part, it's bodies coming out now. Some heavy construction equipment has arrived to help out. But it will take months to clear all the wreckage, with perhaps 80% of the buildings down.

The wind gets up late morning. Gusts whip up dust and debris. Then the rain starts.

Looking through the gloom across what's left of Balakot, at the hundreds of survivors still tearing desperately at the rubble, it's a vision of hell.


American helicopters arrive in Balakot for the first time. Two lumbering twin-rotored Chinooks and a more sprightly Blackhawk.

The big Chinooks unload their cargoes on the makeshift landing strip on the edge of town. Each large box is eased gradually from their bellies until one end is on the ground.

Exhausted searchers
Volunteers are exhausted after their search for survivors
But the draft from the rotors of all these helicopters brings yet more chaos at a basic clinic the Pakistani military have set up nearby. When they land, a cloud of dust blows in to the open tents where they're trying to treat some horrific wounds. It's not the best place to be, but it's too late now.

With the hospital destroyed, it's become the main medical facility for the whole valley. Hundreds of men, women and children are streaming down from villages near and far, with crush injuries, fractures and deep cuts. They've had no help.

Many injuries have become infected. The smell of gangrene hangs in the air.

Military doctor Mohammed Younas Shah tells me they're getting 1,000 patients a day now. My guys are exhausted, he admits. Some recently qualified doctors have come from as far away as Karachi to help. But Dr Shah needs a lot more.

Five-year-old Mohammed Rafiq is in a terrible state. A deep gash, an inch deep in places, from his upper to lower arm.

Much of the aid you see in the town comes from volunteers and it is completely uncoordinated. Much is being wasted
But the wound is no longer red with blood. It's yellow and green, grey in the middle - with gangrene. His tendons are exposed. The flesh has rotted around them. His agony pierces everyone as a student doctor tries to clean the wound, sometimes turning away to gag on the smell.

All he can do is scrub out the affected tissue, then patch him up ready for evacuation. It's just first aid here.

When you're broadcasting for the BBC in the field, often the only source of news from outside is what you hear in your headphones, while you're waiting for your slot to come up.

I hear a report from a colleague saying the United Nations has taken over coordination of the relief effort. But there's no sign of any UN officials here. Or of anyone taking charge

The Pakistani military has brought in more troops with more equipment. They are doing much more. Its helicopters are flying in constantly during daylight hours.

American Chinooks bring aid
Helicopters have been flying aid in
But much of the aid you see in the town comes from volunteers and it is completely uncoordinated. Much is being wasted. Parts of the main street are covered with clothes and blankets dumped by volunteers, sodden after yesterday's rain.

Many soldiers stand around doing little. Some look confused, overwhelmed. I keep meeting people asking where they go to get tents or medicines. Signs have gone up on some ruins, telling people not to steal.

This is a massive disaster. Chaos was inevitable. But this is now the fifth day since the earthquake. And Balakot is no longer inaccessible. The road to the town was opened two days ago.


Down at the helipad, signs of improvement. Dr Shah now has a large military medical tent for his clinic, with beds. They came in with yesterday helicopter drops.

In the open ground nearby, where many survivors have been camping, there are more tents. But many families are still living completely in the open.

In my headphones, I hear things are getting more ordered across the mountains in Muzaffarabad. Tent villages are springing up. But there's still no sign of an organised aid effort here.

As I leave the helipad, I run into a brewing scuffle around a pick-up truck. It's carrying tents and about 100 men have found out. They're pushing and shouting.

Overwhelmed, the three men who were trying to hand out the tents have sat themselves on top of the pile and are refusing to give any of them out until everyone forms a line. Eventually, they give up and drive away - survivors running angrily after them.

It's time for us to move on. A new team has arrived to take over from us.

Outside Balakot the scene along the road has changed a lot. The cluster of Pakistani military tents we saw on Sunday has grown into a large encampment. It looks reasonably ordered, in contrast to the mayhem in town.

And there's a relief camp set up by a mobile phone company, DVCOM.

The reason I know is that they've strung big red banners between the trees, with the company logo.


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