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Recovery, Rescue Effort Continues in Balakot as Some Try to Leave City

VOA's Islamabad correspondent, Benjamin Sand, traveled northeast Friday to Balakot, a city only 15 kilometers from the epicenter of Saturday's massive earthquake. He told editor Barry Kalb in Hong Kong what he saw there.

KALB: Ben, the reports we've been getting talk about absolute chaos and devastation in these towns that are more remote, further up in the hills and closer to the epicenter. What does it look like there in Balakot?

SAND: The first thing that strikes you is the congestion as you try to get into the city. The streets are absolutely packed with people, half trying to get in, half trying to get out. About 80-90 percent of the city's been leveled, people are still digging through the rubble with their bare hands trying to reach the bodies of victims. You can smell in the air the decomposing bodies, and medical workers here say that there's going to be higher risk for epidemic disease if they don't get the bodies out.

KALB: We've had conflicting reports today about whether Pakistan has called off the search in the rubble for possible survivors. First it was announced that no more searches would be done, then that was contradicted. What's the situation there?

SAND: Well, from where I am, first of all, you see very little evidence of official search-and-rescue operations. Mostly it's individuals, groups of volunteers, digging through the rubble…And they do concede that they're no longer expecting to find survivors, but simply recover bodies.

KALB: Is the city badly damaged, or are there still buildings standing?

SAND: I would say the city's about 80 or 90 percent leveled, completely leveled, nothing but rubble. You can't make out or distinguish individual houses. It's just piles of, of debris.

KALB: How close is Balakot to the mountain villages that are cut off by earthquakes that we've been hearing about?

SAND: Well, officials are now saying that the earthquake's epicenter was midway between where I am now, in Balakot, and Muzaffarabad, which is in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. Between those two cities there are a number of smaller villages that run up north through the Himalayan. There are still areas which haven't received any medical care, any emergency attention whatsoever.

KALB: Are any of these people making their way into Balakot to ask for help?

SAND: Displaced people from these remoter areas are trying to walk into Muzaffarabad, into Balakot hoping to receive medical care, but when they get here, they see a scene of such utter chaos and devastation that there's little hope for them, so now there's a steam of displaced people trying to make it to the other cities. But again, that just compounds the problem: chaos in the streets, congestion on the roads.