/ 14 October 2005

Suffering the wrath of gods

Disasters are always most poignant, most chilling, when you know the terrain and the people. So I had stood on the sea wall in Galle, watching kids fly kites, a few months before the tsunami engulfed the south of Sri Lanka. So I remember sitting in a waterfront square in New Orleans early — too early — one morning, hearing the band from the night before still playing. So the roads north from Islamabad, deep into the Hindu Kush, are roads I have travelled in peace and in war.

What you mostly miss from Pakistani earthquake coverage is a sense of the people. Not bodies pulled from beneath piles of rubble, but the sheer mass of humanity exploding round every bend of every road. What’s Pakistan’s population now? Maybe 162-million, heading for 163-million. When I first went there in the 1960s, for one of those ritual wars against India, that figure was only about 68-million, but even then accelerating pell-mell as medicine brought infant mortality down. The nation General Pervez Musharraf strives to control doubles in size every 33 years. Half its citizens are 15 or younger. It is a constant crowd, a teeming throng.

And that gives this earthquake its deadliest edge. The towns and cities are full, concrete blocks and wooden shacks hurled together in a desperate effort to cope, but it is the countryside that somehow seems overburdened: village after village perched on steep hillsides or hunched in valleys, a clutter of huts and tin roofs, a TV satellite dish and, if their luck has held, one imposing mansion a hundred yards away where the village boy who went to Bradford or Atlanta 30 years ago to make good has returned to spend his retirement. It is this landscape, down rocky, rutted tracks, criss-crossed by streams with broken bridges, that the earthquake has shaken to its frail foundations. Sometimes early death counts are too fearful; but this time, I guess, there can be no good news. The toll will rise and rise — with so many children lost since, simply, there are so many children.

The chill grows deeper, then. ”I am driven with a mission from God,” George W Bush may — or may not — have said. God may — or may not — have told him to ”end the tyranny in Iraq”. How does that strike us? As devout, foolish, or (as a harassed White House spokesperson added) ”absurd”? But the past 10 months, right on through an absurdly benighted 2005, have been full of missions from somewhere and perhaps from someone.

Where was the weekend’s earthquake most devastating? In Kashmir, where the war I covered long ago began, a land divided by armies, terrorism and religion. But look around as more disasters pile in. Who has died in the past few days? Thousands of Muslims in Pakistan, surely hundreds of Hindus or Sikhs or Christians across the border in India.

Meanwhile, modestly publicised Hurricane Stan, the one that didn’t threaten Texas or Louisiana, has just killed hundreds more — Roman Catholics — in Central America. Let’s put 2005 in pulpit perspective. The tsunami, as the old year ended, destroyed Buddhist and Hindu temples, mosques and churches with indiscriminate violence. It swept away the agnostic pleasure domes of Thailand’s tourist coast. It drowned people of almost every religion and none. Add New Orleans for the cymbal clash of the born-again and the black, for Southern Baptists and old-time religionists, and what have you got? A year of disaster spread and shared. A year when every God — or no god at all — seemed angry. A year with a mission to destroy.

Here is a year when those who can find no faith look out in bemusement at a globe defined and divided by religion. Oust the godless Saddam from Iraq. Bring Sunni and Shia together to worship the great lord democracy. Trade new popes and Paisleys for old. Never stop talking about Jerusalem — or the ”glory” of the suicide bomber.

It is all, this bleak morning in Azad Kashmir, somehow beside the point. So many dead children, but what does their death mean — except that our Earth is fragile to the core and that no nation and no mission can escape its power? Some of the dead lain out here will be terrorists, used to cross-border infiltration, assassination, bombing. But they will have perished, too, like the kids in the streets, the politicians in their offices, the mullahs at prayer — all victims of our doomed human mission to understand. — Â