Kashmir Quake's Homeless, Still Short Of Aid, Battle Winter
1 February 2006
The New York Times
Islamabad: Three months after the devastating earthquake leveled every house in this mountain village in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, the newlyweds Zaheer and Shazia found themselves sleeping once more in the open, this time in the snow. Their cotton tent had collapsed on top of them in the night under a heavy snowfall, so for four nights, they huddled in the open on a rope bed by a fire.'It was very cold, the snow fell on our faces,' said Shazia, 19, with a shy smile. 'We need a shelter, food rations and bedding.' Despite an enormous aid effort over the three months since the Oct. 8 earthquake, rescue workers are still finding new villages in need of the most basic assistance to hope to survive the harsh winter snows. Two heavy snowfalls in the last month have hampered the relief operation and tested the population of this mountainous area, still traumatized by the quake, which killed 73,338 people, seriously injured 69,000 and left an estimated 2.5 million homeless. 'We are very worried and are being very vigilant,' said Jan Vandemoortele, coordinator chief of the United Nations mission in Pakistan, which is working with the Pakistani government in the relief effort. A long spell of very cold weather could imperil many lives, he said. 'We are aware that the weather could blow us off in a day,' he said. 'We cannot let our heads rest until the spring.' Only a tiny proportion of the homeless moved to unaffected cities to rent accommodations or stay with relatives. Nearly 2 million are living in tents in the valleys and can expect two more months of freezing temperatures, Mr. Vandemoortele said, while some 400,000 people remain above the snowline, cut off by snow and landslides and surviving on airlifts of food and other supplies. Of the 860,000 tents distributed in the rush after the earthquake, only 30,000 were adequate for winter conditions, said Maj. Gen. Farooq Ahmad Khan, Pakistan's federal relief commissioner. When the first snow came at the start of the year, reports flooded in of tents collapsing, and of some burning down when people tried to heat them. A second round of supplies was needed, of plastic sheeting, corrugated metal roofing and tools, to help villagers build better shelters that could be heated, he said. The cold weather has brought a rise in acute respiratory infections - pneumonia in the worst form - which are now the main cause of deaths recorded by health officials. Families have been struggling into the towns after desperate journeys through the snow to seek assistance after their makeshift homes or tents collapsed in the latest heavy snowfall. Yet the relief effort, now in full swing, seems to be winning against the formidable obstacles in one of the most inaccessible disaster areas aid workers have seen. Helicopters - American Chinooks, Pakistani military aircraft and white-painted aircraft chartered by the United Nations and other organizations - ply the skies incessantly to funnel relief supplies into the mountains. Colored tents dot the hillsides and camps spill over and around the main towns. 'Thank God, in the two bad spells of weather, there has been no panic among the 3.5 million affected,' General Farooq said, adding into the count the many villages that survived the quake but have been cut off by landslides. The airlifts of food and shelter materials gave people the confidence that they could survive, and there has not been a large movement of people down to the towns, he said. The region has also avoided any major epidemics so far. An outbreak of cholera was quickly scotched in a camp in Muzaffarabad in November, according to Sacha Bootsma, spokeswoman for the World Health Organization in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. The increase in acute respiratory infections, which amount to 30 percent of all medical consultations, she described as 'definitely a concern,' but so far there had been no health catastrophe. Teams of Cuban and Pakistani doctors are trekking and flying into remote villages. The first priority in the relief effort was to supply those stranded at higher elevations before the winter closed in, but aid workers are still finding families and whole villages that have not received any aid. Shawn Pomeroy, a Canadian mountain climber working for the International Organization for Migration, which has overall responsibility for the shelter program, made the six-hour hike up from the town of Muzaffarabad last week and found the surviving villagers of Qaziabad, 6,000 feet above sea level, camping out. 'They had not received anything to date,' he said. 'We are still filling pockets that missed out in the distribution.' He found more than 400 families in Qaziabad, surviving with cotton tents they had collected from the town below. Some had plastic sheeting to put over the tents, but the village had not received a single airdrop of food or supplies, he said. The road had been cut since the earthquake, and the footpath was treacherous from continuing landslides, he said. Still, he said, the aid effort is making strides. 'It was overwhelming to begin with, the size of the disaster, but we are winning,' he said. But for many of the inhabitants of the earthquake area, the nightmare has not abated. Their faces no longer show the shock so evident in the days immediately after the quake, but fear and uncertainty remains. Villagers in Qaziabad said 250 people had died there and in surrounding hamlets in the earthquake. 'The children wake up at night - they are scared of being buried,' said Rashida, mother of eight, as she tended a fire in the tiny mud hut her husband had fashioned from the rubble of their home. Her 12-year-old daughter, Maria, who was buried in the rubble of her school by the earthquake but was pulled out unharmed, sat silently beside her. Her 12-year- old son, Talbir, said, 'I am scared to sleep in a tent and scared to sleep inside.' Farther west in the town of Balakot, which was severely damaged in the earthquake, several families a day have been trickling in after trekking down from remote snowbound Kaghan Valley. 'We had so many difficulties, and then we had this snowfall,' said Muhammad Asif, 21, who arrived a week ago with his wife, parents and brothers. They took turns carrying his two Asif boys, 2 and 4, for two days through knee-deep snow. 'We had no tent, just a tarpaulin,' he said. 'My plan was to stay up there, but the snow was too much.' 'I am frightened of the mountain,' he added. 'When the snow started, the landslides started again, so we came here,' said his mother, Bibi Sarwar Jan. 'The helicopters stopped also with the snow, and we had no more food.' Many of the mountainsides are still unstable, and landslides have worsened with the recent snow and rain, villagers and aid officials said. Roads cleared by the Pakistani Army in the last two months have been blocked again, and supply trucks have not been able to get more than a few miles outside the main towns. Sajjad, 27, walked five hours from his village, Nuri, in the Kaghan Valley, with his four young children, his wife carrying the youngest, 2½-month-old Waqas. He had built a wooden shack and covered it with plastic after the quake, but it had collapsed on the family one morning after a heavy snowfall. They are also running low on food, he said. 'No helicopters came to our village,' he said. 'We were living on our own food supplies. Helicopters landed at a nearby village, but the villagers there would push us away.' Worst of all, the land was unstable, he said. 'Now there is a big danger of another landslide, and our land is threatened,' he said. 'Lots of boulders are coming down, especially when it rains or snows.' On a warm, sunny day in Balakot, life can seem just bearable. Survivors of the quake are out picking over the rubble of their houses, breaking up concrete and salvaging wood and scrap metal. But when the weather turns, as it did one recent evening, and wind and rain start to lash the tented camps and the acres of rubble, the misery of life in the disaster zone is all too clear. Ignoring the rain, Muhammad Owais Khan, 19, who lost his mother, father, younger brother, grandmother, aunt and his 10-year-old cousin when their house collapsed that October morning, stood looking through a family photo album he had just found in the wreckage of his home. 'That's my father on his wedding day,' he said, pointing to a man in a white suit, garlands of tinsel around his neck. 'And that's my mother,' he said, flicking to a page of a woman in gold ornaments and red silk veil. He had also just found the family Koran in the rubble, and had wrapped it carefully and stowed it with other belongings in a tent he had set up. Then he carried over parts of a smashed washing machine. 'I feel very bad,' he said in English, looking around at the destruction. The government had given every family $438, but it was not even enough to remove the first layer of concrete from the wreckage of his home, he said. 'Five thousand people lived up on this hill, and 70 percent were killed,' he said. They had pulled his 6-month-old cousin from his dead mother's arms, after hearing him cry for two days, he said. His three sisters and uncle survived and are living together in rented accommodations in the nearby town of Mansehra, he said. They could never live again on the hilltop, but would rebuild on land below, he said. 'We will come back after this crushing blow,' he said. 'We will come back. My parents are buried here.'