Darkness and horror in India

In the devastated town at the earthquake's epicentre the rescue effort has barely begun
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The Independent Online

Last night the town of Bhuj in Gujarat, western India, was a place of darkness and stark horror. No electricity, no water supply, hospitals in ruins, the old city - which until yesterday drew crowds of tourists - reduced to piles of rubble. Some say the shocks lasted three to four minutes. When they subsided the town was in ruins.

Last night the town of Bhuj in Gujarat, western India, was a place of darkness and stark horror. No electricity, no water supply, hospitals in ruins, the old city - which until yesterday drew crowds of tourists - reduced to piles of rubble. Some say the shocks lasted three to four minutes. When they subsided the town was in ruins.

It is 48 hours since the huge earthquake - 7.5 on the Richter scale - shattered this historic desert town, but for the thousands rendered homeless the nightmare continues.

"We were at the front desk preparing bills" says Ajay Bora, a receptionist at the Prince Hotel, Bhuj's best, "when the desk started shuddering under my pen. I thought it was a big cracker - sometimes the army lets off these things over in the hills. Then the whole building began lurching from side to side and everyone started screaming and we ran out into the street."

The maze-like lanes of the old city look as if they have been pounded by hundreds of artillery rounds. The 400-year-old Aina Mahal (Glass Palace), home to a celebrated museum of the ruling family's heirlooms, still stands, but lumps of masonry litter the grounds and no one has yet ventured inside to assess the damage to the collection. Outside a body lies covered by a sheet; nearby a dead cow lies on its side, its belly inflating. No rescue work is in progress here.

On a pile of rocks, Pravina Abla stands in tears, pleading with a solitary soldier to help remove the tons of rock that entomb her eight-year-old daughter, who was trapped in the house. Until yesterday afternoon, we are told, her faint cries could still be heard.

Bhuj was the epicentre of Friday morning's quake; it rocked the entire subcontinent, but until we reached the Gulf of Kutch, 75 miles south of Bhuj, there was little sign of its destructive power. Then we crossed the bridge that brought us into the Rann of Kutch - a huge salt marsh that fills with seawater in the monsoon and turns Kutch practically into an island - and the change was instantaneous and startling.

Villages were reduced to stones. Small cement structures lay toppled on their sides. Newly built brick or concrete houses sprawled in devastation. One cement building had shattered into pieces, leaving intact a desk and chair standing inside. And every few minutes we saw lines of villagers stolidly fleeing their stricken homes, filing along the road with babies in their arms and water pots or sacks of grain on their heads, moving in the direction of food, water and shelter.

Yet out here in the countryside the relief effort seems nonexistent. In the morning one military plane after another left the encampment in Ahmedabad, bringing food and medical supplies to Bhuj, but none of it that we could see had reached the devastated villages. Relief brought in by road was insignificantly small - a couple of ambulances, a Jeep or two with medical supplies on the roof.

In the old town of Bhuj, as Mrs Abla stood weeping for her buried daughter, not one hand moved to lift the heaps of stones. It was uncanny. An army officer arrived on the scene, alerted perhaps by Mrs Abla's complaint. "We are working on the multi-storey building near our base," he said. "The town administration tells us where to go and what to do. We are not without equipment - we have earth shifters, metal cutters and so on." Was the administration doing a good job? He smiled wryly but declined to comment.

Organised relief in the town, such as it is, is concentrated in a broad, dusty open space called Jubilee Ground. Here in a crammed, squalid, dusty tent Dr Mehendra Goswamy, a local surgeon, works with negligible resources, giving first aid and sending serious cases to a real hospital 25 miles away.

"Yesterday we local doctors were working on our own," he said. "Today 40 doctors were flown in from as far away as Bombay and Delhi and we have seen 800 or 900 patients. There are enough ambulances and medicines. Nobody can say for sure, but perhaps 2,000 people have died in the city itself."

Outside the first aid tent, the families who have lost their homes prepare to bed down for a second night under flimsy shelters in the cold desert air.

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