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A year after quake, a town and its people in limbo

By Suzanna Koster
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BALAKOT, Pakistan (CNN) -- Fazl Rehman thought nothing could shock him after last year's earthquake, until seismologists said that his hometown of Balakot was built on a fault line.

Government officials warned that a disaster similar to last year's deadly earthquake could happen again, and said tens of thousands of survivors would have to move to a new city yet to be built.

Rehman has mixed feelings about moving. His house and land on a hillside are destroyed. He also lost his job as a cook, since the hotel he worked in was flattened in the disaster, he said. But he would rather live near the graves of his brother, mother-in-law and father-in-law, who died in the quake.

For the moment, Rehman says, he will stay in Balakot.

"My son all the time asks me to go to a safer place, but I can't afford any rent," says Rehman, who with his wife and five children lives in tents near the Kunhar River that runs through Balakot.

Rehman's 8-year old son Fiaz, however, makes clear his feelings: "I am always afraid here. I want to go."

Like Fiaz, many more earthquake survivors in Balakot say they want to move. "Everything is vanished, turned to rubble," says Shamila Begum, whose house was in one of the city's most damaged areas. "I want to leave.

"Everybody wants to move of course," adds shopkeeper Munir Hussain in the destroyed city center. "It's dangerous here."

Balakot was one of the worst-hit places in last year's earthquake. One in 10 of some 20,000 residents were killed, according to the local government of the Mansehra district, where the town of Balakot is located. Thousands more were injured. (Scenes from the devastation in Balakot)

All told, an estimated 73,000 Pakistanis were killed from the October 8, 2005, earthquake, according to the federal government.

Landslides and flooding -- triggered by the damaged landscape after the 7.6 magnitude earthquake -- killed dozens more last July. (Read more on the fear of landslides)

Balakot, in the foothills of the rugged Himalayas, has come to life again. But it is ravaged; tents are rigged up on the remains of houses that were made of stone and wood. Only a few buildings are left standing, many of them beyond repair.

Asif Khan, head of National Center of Excellence in Geology in Peshawar, says the Indian and Eurasian plates -- the latter comprising Central Asia and parts of Europe -- collide in Balakot.

The Indian plate is moving north relative to the Eurasian plate up to 34 millimeters (1.3 inches) each year. The Himalayas take up the energy of this movement until a critical value is reached and an earthquake erupts, Khan says.

"It is just like if you put pressure on a stick that stick will ultimately yield."

More than just the earthquake ravaged Balakot, Khan says. A section of the Indian plate, slightly away from the plate's border, moved up 2.4 meters (2.6 yards) in fractions of a second flattening all that was left in its way.

The new tourist gateway

With another earthquake likely to strike again, the Pakistani government has decided to relocate Balakot and some surrounding villages about 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) westwards in Bakriyal. Work is due to start on building the new town early in 2007. It will cover 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) and be linguistically and ethnically the same, says Habibulah Khan, reconstruction head in the Northwest Frontier province.

The area is on bedrock and there are no known fault lines, he said.

Some residents are skeptical about the move.

"Ninety percent of the people (worked) in agriculture. How can we do that there? There is not much land," says Gul Hassan, a waiter sitting in front of his damaged hotel.

Others fear that Bakriyal has no room for expanding families. "If my family grows, we cannot stay together there," said Naveed Iqbal, an agriculture department official, who owns land and some houses.

" My son all the time asks me to go to a safer place, but I can't afford any rent." - Fazl Rehman

But Salman Shahid, an engineer working on the new city, says prudent planning means the new Balakot will need less land.

It may be more difficult to replace Balakot as the gateway to Khagan and Naran, two of Pakistan's most scenic valleys and very popular amongst tourists. Hassan said that his hotel alone operated 400 touring jeeps.

Shahid says his team was planning restaurants, guest houses and hotels. "We try to build a city with the same possibilities as Balakot."

The project will take several years and costs at least $120 million, Khan says. But some survivors say they will stay, no matter what efforts the government makes to provide a safer place.

Mohammad Pervez, a gray-haired driver, says he will live and die in Balakot. His 13-year-old son died in the disaster. In the hope that Allah spares him next time, Pervez says he is building a mosque on family land.

It has worked before, he says. In the earthquake a rock flattened his religious school, but spared the 23 students and a teacher in it.

He smiles. "If we donate this land, Allah is going to bless us."


Prayers in Balakot about one month after the October 8, 2005, earthquake.




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