Pakistanis Fight Efforts to Relocate City

By PAUL GARWOOD, Associated Press WriterThu Apr 6, 2:28 PM ET

For the hardy people of Balakot, their ruggedly beautiful riverside city has long been worth fighting for. Muslim warrior Sayeed Ahmad Shaheed was slain here in 1831 while failing to repel Sikh invaders. Then nature struck six months ago, killing more than 20,000 residents in a 7.6-magnitude earthquake.

Now survivors of that Oct. 8 disaster are gearing up for a new battle — stopping Pakistan’s government from wiping their city off the map altogether because it lies on fault lines that make it vulnerable to another quake.

“We will never go,” vegetable shop owner Mohammed Hassan, 28, said in the city’s bustling, rubble-strewn bazaar. “We have spent six of the toughest and hardest months of our lives here under the open sky, chilling winter and snow. Now the crisis is over, why should we leave?”

Foreign seismological experts are warning Pakistani authorities that Balakot lies above three fault lines, making it too dangerous for people to stay. The government has frozen reconstruction in a 1,480-acre “red zone” and ordered the city relocated from its present site, about 60 miles north of the capital, Islamabad.

Local officials have come up with a list of at least eight alternative locations and believe construction will start at a new site by year’s end.

The top government official in the Mansehra district that includes Balakot said shifting 300,000 people with historical and economic roots in the city and neighboring areas was difficult, but the only responsible move to make.

“Sometimes you have to make difficult decisions and the purpose (of moving Balakot) is a noble one,” Shakeel Qadir Khan told The Associated Press. “Getting the people out of a dangerous area and helping them resettle is crucial.”

Most residents questioned in Balakot’s thriving fruit and trinkets market said the government was wrong to relocate their city, arguing it made more sense to rebuild earthquake-resistant structures here rather than build a new city from scratch.

Others complained the government only came forward last week with its relocation plans and many residents had already spent money rebuilding homes and shops in the city. They also grumbled about lack of information on the plans and how they would be compensated.

“The government should make its policies clear about what it wants to do and then we will be in a position to give an opinion,” said unemployed 52-year-old Shah Jehan Garlat. “We are not denying the theories of the scientists, and we are worried and scared while living here. But we need to understand what the government wants.”

Balakot, which lies in a steep-sided mountain valley, was flattened by the October earthquake. Scarcely a building escaped major destruction. Thousands still live in crudely rebuilt homes or in tent cities — most of which the government wants to close by Monday. Unemployment is high.

Like elsewhere in the quake zone where 87,000 people died across northern Pakistan, the most pressing needs are for adequate shelter and income.

The Pakistani government, with the aid of the United Nations, other foreign agencies and non-governmental organizations, is gearing up for a major reconstruction drive this month following six months of intensive relief efforts that helped people survive the winter.

Key to those plans is getting the more than 3.5 million people left homeless by the quake to return to their towns and villages and start rebuilding their homes.

More than 70 percent of the thousands of people who have been living in government- and aid agency-run camps have gone back, while a handful of camps will remain open for those too vulnerable to return to villages or hamlets ravaged by the quake.

In Balakot, which lies beside the roaring Kunhar River, overlooked by distant snowcapped mountains, ruins are everywhere. A 5.1-magnitude tremor that shook the earth when an AP reporter visited was a reminder of seismic activity that threatens its inhabitants.

But local aid worker Mohammed Aref, 35, didn’t even flinch. “That was nothing, we’ve seen worse,” he said.

“We as Muslims don’t fear death. We also revere Sayeed Ahmad (Shaheed) who died defending Balakot. Now we are also ready to fight for Balakot. It will be very tough for the government if it tries to move the people from here.”

Source: AP via Yahoo! News
http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20060406/ap_on_re_as/quake_saving_balakot…

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