Days after a 7.6 magnitude earthquake sent tremors across much of South Asia, rescue efforts intensified in the hardest hit area of the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir in the Himalayas. The quake hit on the morning of Oct. 8, devastated Muzaffarabad, the Pakistani-administered capital of Kashmir, and wiped many mountain villages off the map.

As of Oct. 10, the official death toll was 20,000 and number of injured 42,000, but as the chaos subsides and rescue teams gain access to rubble and remote mountain areas, numbers are certain to increase.

Nearby India recorded 1,300 deaths, 4,500 injured and 32,000 homes damaged. Tremors of the quake were felt as far west as Kabul, Afghanistan, which recorded four casualties.

In Muzaffarabad, international rescue teams and civilian volunteers, sometimes using only their bare hands, searched for survivors in the mud and rubble of what was once a city of 600,000. An estimated 2.5 million to 4 million people in the worst hit areas near the mountainous Pakistani-India border are without food, water, electricity and shelter.

Water and sanitation systems are heavily damaged, and UN officials warned of a possible measles epidemic and the spread of cholera and diarrhea.

In Britain, a spokesperson for the Indian Workers Association noted that, “like any other major disasters, natural or man-made, it is the poor people — either in Third World countries or in highly developed countries such as the U.S., with New Orleans — who suffer most.”

International and regional aid organizations are operating rescue efforts in the area. Missions from the governments of Turkey, Iran, Russia, Japan, Australia, the United Arab Emirates and several European countries are also on site. Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia have also pledged aid.

Cuban President Fidel Castro offered to send 200 doctors to Pakistan. Cuba has already dispatched over 300 medical personnel to Guatemala, with promises of 200 more, in response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Stan last week.

The Bush administration originally offered $100,000 in earthquake aid but subsequently pledged $50 million. The increase came after Pakistanis and others called Bush’s initial pledge “a joke,” noting that even Sri Lanka, hard hit by last December’s tsunami, was giving $100 million in aid.

In a gesture of solidarity welcome amid longtime animosity over the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region, the government of India offered tents, blankets, plastic sheets, food, medicines and helicopters. Pakistan accepted the material aid but stated that neither Indian troops nor helicopters would be involved in the rescue operation. Pakistan’s acceptance of the Indian aid reflects a policy departure that may signal a step toward peace talks.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) immediately issued a statement of condolence to the families in Jammu and Kashmir as well as the families in the affected areas of Pakistan, sent over 1 million rupees (approximately $22,400) to the hard-hit areas and called on all their party organizations throughout the country to collect money for relief operations.

The CPI(M) also called on India’s central government to immediately organize emergency relief and rehabilitation measures in Jammu and Kashmir.