Remember the children in Asia's quake

The outpouring of global rescue teams, aid, and prayers after a big quake hit South Asia on Saturday was especially acute for one reason alone: half of the victims were children. Entire schoolhouses collapsed, leaving thousands of mourning parents.

No wonder Muslims in that area of northwest Pakistan could be seen in the hours after the quake quietly praying as they sat in the streets, reciting verses from the Koran. They later told journalists to ask people around the world to pray for them.

It would be difficult indeed not to respond with deep empathy to such a heartfelt need after a tragedy of this scale. Current estimates are that more than 20,000 people perished in the 7.6-magnitude quake.

At the same time, the survivors didn't wait for the (slow) response of Pakistan's military and began the frantic digging to find those still alive in the rubble of downed buildings. Thousands lined up to donate blood, while some courageously acted to stop looters. Local mosques kept people alert by broadcasting new needs from their minarets. With Muslims currently celebrating Ramadan, public morale was especially focused on helping the millions of homeless. Such actions of self-help should add to the willingness of other nations to support Pakistan after this crisis.

Each tragic natural event comes with many lessons, but for nations in major earthquake zones such as Pakistan, two key lessons should now be basic: Schoolhouses must be built to the latest earthquake standards, and children should be given regular training in how to respond during earthquakes (Japan is especially experienced in such training).

Both India and Pakistan, despite recent past wars and current tensions over the territory of Kashmir, have a joint interest in taking such steps. They both have populations living on the southern flank of the Himalayas, where the Indian tectonic plate is slowly crashing into the Asian continent. Geologists have long warned of giant quakes to come, and they say Saturday's may be mild compared to what is possible in that fault zone. A 2001 earthquake in the Indian state of Gujurat killed 14,000 people.

This week's seismic tragedy, because it left victims on both sides of the line that divides Kashmir, should be used by these two rival nations to draw closer. Disasters have a way of revealing a common humanity despite sharp differences. In Indonesia, for instance, the tragedy of last year's tsunami in Banda Aceh led to a peace settlement between the government and separatist rebels.

As it is, Pakistan finally accepted India's offer of military helicopters to reach victims in remote areas, even though it had initially rejected the offer. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf should now look at other ways to allow his nation and India to cooperate their postquake actions, while also using the tragedy to call for a total end of violence in divided Kashmir.

In many quake-hit areas of Pakistan, officials warn that a "whole generation" has been lost with the deaths of so many children. Making sure any future quakes don't take the same toll while bringing peace to that area of the world should be top priorities of India and Pakistan once a recovery begins. •

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