A Look at Pre-Earthquake Kashmir
NEAL CONAN, host:
Natural disasters often focus attention on people and places we knew little about before. This week that place is Muzaffarabad, the city near the epicenter of the earthquake in Pakistan. Last week the busy capital of Pakistan's part of Kashmir was home to about 90,000 people. Now it's the dateline for the lead story in every newspaper and newscast around the world. Writer and journalist Victoria Schofield has visited Muzaffarabad on many occasions. She's the author of several books about the region, most recently "Kashmir in the Crossfire: India, Pakistan and the Unending War," and she's with us now from the BBC's Bush House in London.
Very good of you to be with us today.
Ms. VICTORIA SCHOFIELD (Author): Very pleased to be here.
CONAN: Had we visited this town last week, what would we have seen?
Ms. SCHOFIELD: Well, you would have seen a South Asian--an ordinary South Asian town with a lot of buildings, people going about the markets in their rickshaws, a lot of activity. Not an affluent area by any means, but nonetheless people with roofs over their heads and leading a normal life.
CONAN: Is it a charming place? Is it rundown? What?
Ms. SCHOFIELD: No, it's not what you'd call rundown because the people in that part of the world are very proud and they take pride in their houses. It's in the lee of the mountains. It's not the most beautiful part of northern Pakistan, but it's nonetheless very attractive. You have the mountains which lead the foothills of the Himalayas going higher, and you can look over the valleys as well, and so it's, as I say, a typical South Asian town that would have been completely taken by surprise by these events. There has not been an earthquake in that region within living memory, and so I think the people's lives have been absolutely devastated.
CONAN: Tell us about the people who live there. Who are they? What do they do for a living?
Ms. SCHOFIELD: Well, the area where the epicenter is is what's part--it's called Azad Jammu Kashmir. That's `Free Jammu Kashmir,' according to the Pakistanis. If you look at it from an Indian perspective, it's called Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. It's not officially part of Pakistan, although we are obviously calling it Pakistan, and it--because of this, it's a narrow strip of land that runs--is bordered by two rivers, the Neelum River and the Kumar River(ph) and leading down towards the Jhelum. And this is one of the problems you see, because there's only been one road up towards Muzaffarabad, and that's--when that one road has a landslide, then it makes communication very difficult, and it's very easy to cut it off.
The people themselves have been subjected to a certain amount of uncertainty because, as they say, they live in the disputed part of a state. But they lead ordinary lives in agriculture, in merchandise, in logging--because of the rivers they're able to float logs down the river--and live according to what nature's given them in that part of the world.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Muzaffarabad is, of course, not alone in this disaster. Many smaller, from this distance anonymous places, in the mountains have been much worse hit, at least in terms of the percentage of the town that's been destroyed.
Ms. SCHOFIELD: Well, absolutely, and, in fact, what has happened, Muzaffarabad's the epicenter, but the--it's bordered by the Kumar and Jhelum rivers, and the other side of that border is the northwest frontier province of Pakistan, and there are little towns there--Balakot, Bansara--they've also had--been completely destroyed. So you're looking at an area which is crossing rivers and also where the people are culturally a little bit different. It's not under the same governor. They've got two different administrations there because it's a locally administered area where--and so that's also something you've got to take into consideration when organizing relief is that it's straddling two affected administrations within Pakistan.
CONAN: There has been, obviously, considerable political unrest in Kashmir for many, many years, but mostly not on this side of the line of control.
Ms. SCHOFIELD: No, this is what I think has confused some people when they've heard that there's been an earthquake in Kashmir, they've automatically assumed that most of the devastation has been in what they associate with Kashmir, which is the valley of Kashmir. But that--it has been affected, but certainly not as badly as the Pakistan-administered side.
CONAN: I understand many of the inhabitants of this area left 30 years ago to move to London where you are now.
Ms. SCHOFIELD: Well, I wouldn't say necessarily many. A vast proportion who live in the area slightly to the south, which has not been quite so affected in Mirpur region, they left because they were offered compensation when the Mangla reservoir was created and it flooded a certain amount of land, and that does mean that a lot of these people have relatives in--living in Britain and, in fact, we've had a huge relief effort coming from Bradford in the north of England where a number of the Pakistani families from this region, both from Mirpur and also from Muzaffarabad, because they've all got relatives living in one or other of these towns, have sent back assistance--blankets, clothes, what they can, and it's been absolutely startling what's left actually from those towns in Britain.
CONAN: We did see in Sri Lanka, for example, after the tsunami there efforts at reconciliation politically, similarly in Aceh province. Are--do you hold out any hope that similar things might happen in Kashmir?
Ms. SCHOFIELD: Well, I think the whole earthquake across northern Kashmir has certainly sent shock waves both to Delhi and Islamabad. I--it is encouraging that already a peace process was under way, and I think we mustn't lose sight of that, that there was already a very genuine desire by both countries to resolve the dispute that they have over Kashmir. I think obviously it's still early days, and we mustn't get too excited that a humanitarian crisis will necessarily lead to the resolution of what has been a very complicated issue between the two countries ever since their independence in 1947. But if we can be optimistic, it would be nice to say, well, once the humanitarian issue has been sorted out, perhaps they will renew their efforts at negotiating tables so that they can actually resolve a political issue which has caused a considerable amount of suffering for the people anyway, given that they're now having to undergo this humanitarian crisis as well.
CONAN: Victoria Schofield, thanks very much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.
Ms. SCHOFIELD: Thank you.
CONAN: Victoria Schofield is the author of "Kashmir in the Crossfire: India, Pakistan and the Unending War." She joined us from BBC's Bush House in London.
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