“The entire building is swaying. We are in the middle of a huge earthquake”. There were the eerily calm words of CNN’s bureau chief in New Delhi on the morning of Saturday 8th October. Quickly, I headed to the office to gather information about the quake’s epicenter and its intensity. I held my breath when I read reports it had registered 7.6 on the Richter scale. In 2001, a quake of less intensity killed an estimate 30,000 in Western India.
I met a CNN crew on the streets of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad a few hours later. As I reported on the rescue efforts from a collapsed apartment block, it became horrifyingly apparent that if the damage was so great here, it would be of catastrophic proportions in rural areas close to the border region between India and Pakistan.
Once again, eyewitnesses produced some of the most powerful images of the earthquake. A few minutes after I began covering the rescuers pulling men and women from under the rubble of the flattened building, a Chinese business executive living in the area approached me and showed me images of the building collapsing he had captured on his mobile phone.
As soon as he felt the first tremors, he brazenly ran out of his home and filmed the 10-story tower swaying dangerously. Within seconds, the building fell to the group in a cloud of dust. The screams of neighbors and survivors running around in a daze captured the horror of the earthquake. The video ran repeatedly on CNN. It demonstrated, just a previous video shot by tourists showing the full force of the tsunami hitting the coast last December had, that a few minutes is all that mother Nature needs to unleash its fury and change the lives of millions.
Since those first few hours in the relative calm of the capital, I have moved from one place to another, by plane and by car, a witness to countless tragedies, school buildings collapsed like pancakes with hundreds of children dead inside, entire villages destroyed and convoys of aids and refugees stranded by landslides and destroyed roads. Viewed from the air, the town of Balakot in the North West Frontier and the surrounding area appeared as if it had bee struck by a nuclear bomb; not one building remained standing and casualties are estimated in the thousands.
In the village of Chapagram , every mud hut and nearly every wood building was completely destroyed. 80 people lost their lives and the 1500 survivors are now living out in the open. Without tents or water and very little food or medication, they are increasingly angry. When an aid truck arrived, it caused a riot, one survivor told me.
When a helicopter touches down, hundreds of destitute survivors swarm around it, screaming, “Are you bringing food? Are you bringing food?” People kept asking that same question for over five minutes.
The scope and scale of the tragedy are so intense that the situation is not expected to improve quickly. Following repeated appeals by the Pakistani government, international aid is arriving, including the heavy lift helicopters. On Monday alone, five Chinooks and three Black Hawks landed in Islamabad from the US .
Casualties in India have also been significant, yet New Delhi has offered to help its neighbor and longtime foe. This is a small but important step as it is time to rebuild what this month’s earthquake has ravaged and resolve the conflicts of the past. Like millions across the region, I too pray the people of the Indian subcontinent can once more display their legendary resilience and overcome what the history books may describe as the region’s most challenging few years.
*Satinder Bindra is a senior international correspondent for CNN, based in New Delhi. He has been reporting from across Pakistan since the quake struck on Saturday October 8.