A food street grows in Pakistani Kashmir

by AFP/Masroor Gilani, Aug 27, 2007 | Destinations: Pakistan

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan, Aug 24, 2007 - From a city of the dead, the quake-battered capital of Pakistani Kashmir has become a city of lights with traditional food served in a stunning riverside setting at its centre.

Beneath a historic bridge that has survived centuries of calamity, locals and expatriate aid workers gather nightly at the region's only riverside food street, now a symbol of hope as Muzaffarabad slowly recovers from the 2005 earthquake that killed 74,000 people.

At the confluence of the crystal-clear Neelam and the muddy Jhelum rivers, bustling restaurants and cafes serve clients until midnight, offering a welcome respite from the rebuilding efforts that go on around the clock.

The 7.6-magnitude earthquake -- the biggest disaster in the country's history -- struck on October 8, 2005, leaving around 3.5 million homeless in northwestern Pakistan and Kashmir.

About 85 percent of houses in the city were damaged or destroyed, more than 34,000 people were killed, and 56,500 others injured. Few of the city's 900,000 people were unaffected, the National Disaster Management Authority says.

Although the open-air food street reopened only in May, people had begun drifting back to the area months earlier, looking for solace amid the pain.

"Survivors and aid workers started coming to this place to unwind from the day and escape from the harsh tent life," said restaurateur Lala Mustafa, 50, referring to the tent cities that replaced the houses still being rebuilt here.

Mustafa, whose Lalazar eatery was destroyed in the earthquake, said local traders decided to reopen their food stalls after noting that families had begun converging on the area to share evening picnics.

As most survivors were living in tents, he said, the food street became a meeting point for families and friends, a place they could relax, he said.

"In the earlier days, families used to meet each other here and pray for their dead relatives," said Mustafa, adding that around 250 people including foreign aid workers visit the place daily.

Mustafa, who lost his wife, mother and younger brother in the quake, runs the administration of the food street, now a strip of seven stalls serving authentic Kashmiri meat dishes and barbecue, cafes offering soft drinks, ice cream and milkshakes, and tea and coffee shops.

Round tin tables and benches are covered by a makeshift canopy -- an indication of baby steps the area has taken since the devastation of 2005.

In most areas of the city, rebuilding goes on -- with a pre-winter spurt as families try to avoid another freezing season in the open -- though the process has not been without problems.

In May the United Nations announced it had suspended aid work in a quake-affected district after the house of two staff members was torched by suspected Islamists.

That attack, in which no one was injured, came after local people and clerics asked aid agencies not to employee female staff in the area.

In June, the Asian Development Bank granted Pakistan a 400-million-dollar soft loan to rebuild homes, part of an aid package worth one billion dollars.

Here in food street, as the evening sky turns a velvety blue, the focus turns from recovery to festivity.

"Famous Kashmiri dishes like goshtaba, rastay and methsaz are mainly made of meat and eaten with boiled rice and washed down with salty tea," Mustafa said as he strolled along the riverbank.

Goshtaba is made with mutton that has been vigorously mashed on a slab of stone with a wooden mortar and shaped into meatballs which are then cooked in yoghurt. Rastay is a curried meat dish, and methsaz is lamb roasted with the aromatic herb fenugreek.

Domel -- the name means "rendez-vous of two rivers" -- where food street is locted is a historic area of Pakistani Kashmir, where in 1885 Maharaja Ranbeer Singh built a stone bridge that still serves the city and survived the quake intact.

Its durability has become a source of strength for Kashmiris.

"I often come here to relax -- the nice environment and delicious food attracts me to this place," said Mohsin Rashid, 19, a student at Muzaffarabad Degree College.

"I like lassi (churned yogurt drink) and cornbread and chicken tikka," he said as he sat surrounded by his friends waiting for his order.

A Western aid worker, who asked not to be named, told AFP: "My friends recommended this place to me and it's very nice. The environment is beautiful and this place has a history which is quite interesting."

Mustafa said the city had plans to expand Domel into a landmark area that could become a pivot of the local economy.

"We are not here to make profits only -- we mainly revived this place in order to serve the bereaved survivors and outsiders who came here to serve humanity after the earthquake," Mustafa said.

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