MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) – Pakistan united in mourning on Sunday in memory of about 73,000 people killed in an earthquake exactly a year ago, while survivors vented frustration over the pace of reconstruction.
Almost two weeks into Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, Pakistan’s mosques have been even more crowded than usual.
On Sunday, worshippers prayed in unison for the dead and survivors alike to mark the first anniversary of the nation’s worst disaster.
“This day has revived my sorrows because I have lost many loved ones,” said Abdul Rahim in Muzaffarabad, one of the worst affected areas.
“May God give courage to our new generation to rebuild this city,” said Rahim, 65, as he waited for a commemoration ceremony to begin at a stadium near the Pakistan Kashmiri capital’s ruined university.
Sirens sounded across the nation to start a minute’s silence.
The quake struck at 8.52 a.m. on a Saturday morning, at a time when schools and government offices were full.
With an intensity measured at 7.6, it lasted less than two minutes, yet destroyed the homes of more than 3 million people in North West Frontier Province and Pakistani Kashmir.
Small prayer meetings were held in Balakot, a town in the Frontier province that suffered the most intensive devastation.
The largest group of mourners were in the grounds of a ruined school where 63 children were buried in a common grave. More than 200 were killed there when the walls and ceilings caved in.
“Today’s no different from the other days, because I haven’t been able to forget those terrible scenes for the past year,” said Taimur Khan, 22, who had returned to Balakot to pray at the graves of his parents and sister.
There was also a memorial service held in Islamabad to remember those killed in the Margala Towers — the only building in the capital to collapse. An overnight vigil was held at the site of the ten-storey residential block, where nearly 50 people died, many of them foreigners.
A further 1,500 people were killed across the ceasefire line of the divided region, in Indian Kashmir.
Shared grief has failed to push Pakistan and India toward a solution to their longstanding territorial dispute over Kashmir, the cause of two wars since they won independence from British colonial rule in 1947.
Addressing the commemoration in Muzaffarabad, President Pervez Musharraf promised he would continue to strive for a settlement.
He also gave assurances that the bulk of rebuilding would be completed within two or three years, and that allegations of corruption would be dealt with firmly.
“With the Grace of God, things are heading toward much improvement,” said Musharraf in a speech after laying a wreath at a memorial, following the one minute’s silence and prayers.
With a second winter just a couple of months away, and many victims still living in tents or makeshift shelters, critics accused the government authority overseeing rebuilding of dragging its feet in dispensing funds and setting appropriate guidelines for earthquake-proof construction of new homes.
In Balakot, leading politicians heard angry complaints and a few hundred people marched in protest. On Saturday, hundreds more had demonstrated outside parliament in Islamabad.
Officials have been accused of corruption, although foreign observers believe any graft is occurring at very local levels rather than at the center.
Relief agencies seeking funds to keep operations going in a quake zone the size of New Zealand, spread across the western Himalayan foothills, have said that up to 1.8 million people could be at risk of cold and sickness over the winter.
Musharraf says those fears are overblown, and just 35,000 people would pass a second winter in tents in a region where mountain communities endure freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall.
But the president says Pakistan needed a further $800 million in aid, as 600,000 new homes had to be built. This is 50 percent more than the government had estimated when donors stumped up $6.5 billion at a conference a month after the catastrophe to cover the cost of emergency relief and reconstruction.