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By Marcus Stern
Copley News Service

BALAKOT, Pakistan - - Saleem Khan's bloodshot eyes reflected the weight of immeasurable loss, not just for the 14 family members under fresh burial mounds in a family garden, but also for the 270 shopkeepers whose families will remain destitute until he rebuilds his Kaghan Road Bazaar, where they had their shops.

An Oct. 8 earthquake centered near this pastoral Himalayan gateway lifted the ground six feet in some places, according to residents, killing thousands and leveling most of the city. Some 400 children alone perished when their classrooms collapsed on them.

Before the massive quake, Balakot was a town of roughly 70,000 straddling the jade-white waters of the Khunar River. Because of its strategic location on the road to the scenic Kaghan Valley and many of the world's tallest mountains, Balakot was a flourishing center of tourism.

Today, it lies in ruin.

Two months after the quake, the scene still is one of utter devastation. Men with sledgehammers pound away at concrete slabs to salvage rebar. Survivors keep themselves busy with chores in a warren of tent villages pitched in and around the ruins of their city. They wash their clothes, dishes and themselves in a nearby stream. Lentils or rice are delivered twice a day in oversized fire-blackened pots.
The dead have been buried, the injured evacuated and tents set up. Now Balakot's survivors, numbering in the tens of thousands, seem stuck somewhere between stunned and despairing. Their lives, like their homes, lie in ruin.

They all have lost husbands, wives, parents, children or siblings. They have no shops or jobs. They have no homes or hope. Their city is gone, perhaps forever.

After the earth heaved and ruptured on the morning of Oct. 8, Saleem Khan gathered himself and raced to his home. He found his mother partially buried in the rubble of their majestic 32-room house. She was badly injured and crying for water. He went running, searching. But there was no water. He raced home and found her dead.

His mother is among the 14 family members buried in fresh graves in the garden. So are his wife and a son. Balakot is sprinkled with thousands of such fresh graves, many of them containing more than one body. People here put the death toll at 35,000, a figure that can't be confirmed. Half the population died, they say. That can't be confirmed either. What is clear is that fresh graves are scattered throughout the ruins of Balakot. No one was spared the loss of a loved one.

Saleem Khan, his eyes bloodshot from sorrow, is supervising men swinging sledgehammers to pulverize the concrete ruins of his bazaar. His brother, the nazim, or mayor, of Balakot, was killed when his home collapsed on him and his wife.
Saleem Khan is president of the businessmen's association. His Kaghan Road Bazaar housed 270 of the city's 1,100 shops. About 1,000 of Balakot's shops lie in ruin, he said.

As he moves through the rubble of the bazaar, shopkeepers rush up one by one and place their cupped hands in his, bowing respectfully. When a reporter asks when they will reopen their shops they turn with expectant eyes to Saleem Kahn and say it is up to him. It will be whenever he rebuilds the Kaghan Road Bazaar, they say. Saleem Khan proffers a weak smile to each shopkeeper and his bloodshot eyes summon warmth from somewhere. Sounds of sledgehammers echo around him. But part of his mind is elsewhere. Perhaps that part of him is still searching for water for his mother.

Muhammad Mawab, 45, a watchmaker, lost his wife, one son, his shop and his house to the quake. Mohd Miskeen's machine shop lay in ruins under its collapsed roof. A young pharmacist and his brother, whose fingers are bloodied, claw at the debris beneath the concrete slab that now sits on their shop. They aren't trying to retrieve their stockpile of medicines, they say. They're trying to retrieve their medical records.

"If there is no bazaar, then the shopkeepers will have no money," Saleem Kahn said. "If they have no money, they cannot rebuild their houses. And they cannot buy food for their families. Every shop is a family."

Balakot had 30 barbershops. Forty-five days after

the quake, barber Muhammad Jawad put a chair by the road overlooking the rubble and tents. He set up a nightstand with a mirror in front of the chair and people began lining up for haircuts. Soon two other barbers set up outdoor chairs.

Like spring daffodils, the makeshift outdoor barbershops along the main road are the first signs that Balakot's business community, its lifeblood, is reviving. Jawad said he has about 30 customers a day. His actual shop was not completely destroyed, and he hopes to reopen it in several months.

A shop owner built a makeshift kitchen on the sidewalk in front of the store where he sold car batteries. Balakot has no need for car batteries these days. So he sells hot snacks to passersby. Across the street, boys have put an assortment of merchandise on a rope bed. Nearby, produce merchants sell from under a tarp set up against their collapsed vegetable shops.

Saleem Kahn and other business leaders in Balakot want to rebuild its destroyed houses and shops. They plead for interest-free loans so they can put people to work rebuilding the bazaars and houses. The shopkeepers can reopen their shops and use their earnings to rent the new houses or apartments.

Those thousands of loved ones lying in fresh graves can never be brought back to life, they say, but Balakot's vibrant economy can be restored.

"At the moment, the people are grieving and very demoralized," said Ahmed Nawaz Khan, whose own

bazaar lay in ruins. "But people are resilient. Things will get better. This is the gateway to the Kaghan Valley and the northern areas. It gives Balakot its importance. It still has importance."
Saleem Khan's grandfather came to Balakot 40 years ago and began building the modern city, starting on a prominent hillside overlooking the town. On that hillside, now known as Old Balakot, not a single house is left standing. What Saleem Khan's family and others spent 40 years building here, the earthquake destroyed in minutes.

Throughout the city, men paid by property owners like Saleem Khan and Nawaz swing sledgehammers to break up the concrete and free the rebar, which is a rod used to reinforce concrete. Other men pile the rebar in a tangle. Still others pull out the rebar a piece at a time and straighten it so it can be used in the rebuilding.

Saleem Kahn says this time they will put rebar in the foundations so the buildings can stand up to an earthquake. But salvaging the rebar is little more than an expression of hope. With his bazaar and inventory of houses destroyed, Saleem Kahn is no longer collecting rent. Like everyone else, he is living off his savings. He doesn't have the money to rebuild all that has been destroyed.

A $500,000 loan would allow him to rebuild all of his 270 shops, he said, which would feed 270 families.

The United Arab Emirates has offered to pay for the reconstruction of Balakot. The government of Pakistan is formulating a plan that includes buying

up the property, rebuilding the houses and leaving Old Balakot in ruins, as a monument to the disaster of 2005. The houses will be built by summer and the construction will serve as a model for how to build houses to withstand earthquakes, according to Akram Khan Durrani, chief minister of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, which includes Balakot.

The plan does not please Saleem Khan. He believes it will turn Balakot into a government housing project.

"We will fight it," he said. "If we lose, I will leave." Yet another cloud hangs over Balakot.

A geological survey conducted since Oct. 8 concluded that the city lies too close to the Muzaffarabad fault line to be rebuilt safely where it is. The study recommends a site several miles south along the Khunar River.

The land mass of India has been in a slow-motion collision with the Tibetan Plateau for the past 40 million years. That collision has produced the Himalaya<cq>, the world's tallest mountain range and also one of its youngest. It's still growing at a rate of roughly an inch every five years.

The Oct. 8 quake was a growth spurt. That single growth spurt might have buried Balakot, the prosperous, pastoral gateway to the Kaghan Valley, for good.