MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan's president led a somber memorial service Sunday in Pakistani Kashmir to mark the first anniversary of a massive earthquake that killed more than 80,000 people across Pakistan and India.
Sirens wailed and a minute's silence was held at 8:52 a.m., when the 7.6 magnitude earthquake first struck across northern Pakistan and in the war-divided region of Kashmir, leaving more than 100,000 injured and 3.5 million homeless.
Gen. Pervez Musharraf led the memorial ceremony in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, at the grounds of the Azad Jammu Kashmir University, which was destroyed in the earthquake.
Hundreds of people stood in silence in the normally bustling main street of Muzaffarabad, one of the cities worst hit by the disaster.
Musharraf praised the massive relief effort, led by Pakistan's military, that sprang into action immediately after the quake to rescue people from the rubble, provide relief and begin a large-scale reconstruction program.
"It is a victory for the government, for the army, for the people, for the non-governmental organizations and for the world that supported it," Musharraf told at least 1,000 people who attended the service. "It was due to the help and generosity of the whole world and the NGOs that we were able to improve the situation."
The Pakistani president also urged people affected by the quake to be patient, promising his government was working to improve their lives.
But the task of rebuilding is daunting, even with pledges of US$6.7 billion (euro5.27 billion) in aid. More than 600,000 homes, 6,500 schools and 800 clinics and hospitals were destroyed by the quake, as well as more than 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) of roads.
In Muzaffarabad, the force of the quake toppled hundreds of buildings, trapping thousands under the rubble. The quake triggered massive landslides that sheared thousands of tons of soil from towering mountains surrounding the city. Ghostly white scars still remain on the mountain faces where the land was cut away.
But life here has assumed a degree of normality among the partially cleared ruins. Hotels are undergoing reconstruction and doing a brisk trade. Rubble and collapsed minarets no longer block the narrow alleys of Medina Market. Crudely repaired stores are well stocked. Across the city, children attend class at schools set up in tents and prefabricated buildings.
Displaced families still crowd city parks and hillsides, living in crudely erected shacks or under canvas. The government says about 40,000 people remain in tents and that reconstruction has started on one-fifth of the earthquake-proof homes destroyed by the disaster.
Hundreds of memorial services were being held across Pakistan to mark the disaster, which sparked a massive outpouring of humanitarian relief and reconstruction aid that continues in many of the affected areas.
Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz are expected to travel throughout the northern Pakistani quake zones on Sunday to attend ceremonies and inaugurate facilities that have been built in the year since the earthquake ravaged cities, towns and mountain villages.
About 100 members of the hardline Jamaat-e-Islami group held a prayer service at a small Muzaffarabad mosque.
In the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, about 200 people observed a minute's silence at the site of the luxury Margalla Towers apartment building that collapsed in the quake, killing 74 people.
Among those attending the memorial were relatives of those who died. Many hugged each other, wept and placed flowers at the site where the apartment block once stood.
"We have gathered here to pay our respects to the departed souls and to renew our commitment to helping those still in need," U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Pakistan, Jan Vandemoortele, said at a separate ceremony held near the towers.
Musharraf has said his government will ensure the provision of basic facilities to those affected by the quake and that he hopes 80 percent of the reconstruction will be over in the next three years. Aid organizations have said the reconstruction could take up to eight years to complete.