Pakistan Earthquake Devastation Proves Elusive

Pakistani villagers collect their belongings under the rubble of their homes destroyed from an earthquake in Shangla in Swat valley, Pakistan, Oct. 28, 2015.

Editor's Note: VOA's Ayaz Gul, a veteran reporter who has covered natural disasters and other calamities in the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan, headed out of Islamabad after the ground stopped shaking to survey the damage from this week's extremely strong earthquake. Here is a first-person account of what he found at the scene.

ISLAMABAD — This was not what I expected.

The brunt of the force of the magnitude-7.5 earthquake that struck Pakistan on Monday afternoon was felt in the northwestern region.

Most of the death and destruction was feared to have been there because it was close to the epicenter, located on the Afghan side of the border.

The violent shaking felt the same as the 2005 earthquake, which was similar in magnitude, killed at least 86,000 people, injured more than 69,000 others and caused extensive damage in northern Pakistan.

Hours after the calamity hit, I jumped in the car to try to reach the areas that I was told were the most affected.

My cameraman and I started the journey in the middle of the night, trying to find signs of destruction on the drive through the mountainous terrain.

The journey was smooth as we passed through the valleys, but despite our fears, no landslide met us on the way. The northwestern Malakand region, commercial hub of Batkhaila, was quiet. Few residents could be found, but shops were intact.

Town of Timargrah

We then entered the town of Timargrah, which was supposed to have been badly hit.

We stopped and asked people at the various roadside hotels if they were victims of the quake or if they could guide us to places were there was heavy damage.

We were told to go farther because they were not aware of it, even though they said they felt the tremor and fled their homes. It was a reply that was repeated in every town we visited.

In the district of Dir, where the media and local government officials gave accounts of destruction, three mini trucks loaded with relief supplies passed our vehicle. We followed them, assured they would lead us to the devastation we had expected to find.

The trucks arrived at their destination in the tribal district of Bajuar, which borders Afghanistan's northeastern Kunar province, where the earthquake reportedly caused substantial material damage and human casualties.

But instead of delivering desperately needed relief supplies to victims of the quake, the three vehicles were carrying supplies in preparation for other relief work.

Daily routines

It was shortly after sunrise and the local tribesman were already deeply involved in their daily routines.

Children were on their way to school. I asked about damages caused by the earthquake. Some said they knew about nearby villages where people were killed or homes were destroyed, while others suspected the destruction may have been the result of heavy rain prior to the quake.

This was not what I expected.

Back in Bajuar, officials gave me details of casualties but could not guide me to a place where I could see signs of destruction caused by the earthquake.

After a few hours searching, I started my journey home. It was now midday and the darkness of night that hid details of the landscape was replaced by brilliant sunlight.

The beauty of the nature stunned me: the river flowing by the side of the road, the mountain peaks covered with snow and the green valleys, and nowhere could I see the kind of displacement one would associate with the horrible shaking I felt 400 kilometers (250 miles) away in Islamabad.

I was stunned, too, but glad to see that not only was nature intact here, but the people of the region also seemed unharmed. Life was bustling as we passed roadside markets.

I saw private and military ambulances heading toward the quake-hit region from where I had just been and I questioned myself on their direction and reason to go.

In the meantime, I received an official text message from the Pakistan military that 26 relief distribution centers had been set up in the same towns that I had just visited, a curiosity because in these small areas, setting up a relief distribution center would be hard to miss.

And I could not find one.

Local officials

I checked back with the officials and told them I could not find indications of a distribution center in the towns. I could not get a satisfactory answer.

And, when I told them that I could not even see signs of destruction from the quake, their reply -- “Thank God! That's good news, isn't it.” -- was especially mystifying.

I continued my journey and arrived back in Islamabad in the evening and came to the conclusion that although the tremor was terrible, it did not cause the kind of damage everyone had feared.

Whatever actions authorities were putting in place were in reaction to local TV reports that raised the death toll by the hour, without any attribution and displayed mobile phone footage of the so-called landslides and broken bridges that I could not locate, at least in and around the towns that I was told were the worst hit by the quake.

I am still wondering whether the reported death toll and accounts of hundreds of injured people being hospitalized and treated had any grounds in reality, although casualties in isolated areas could not be ruled out in a region where most of the settlements are built with mud.

This was not what I expected.

VIEW: VOA photos of other areas that suffered damage in the magnitude-7.5 earthquake