One Year On, Pakistan's Desperate Refugees Pray For Another Miracle
5 October 2006
Muzaffarabad: Shelter is precious in the refugee camps along the rocky road north of Muzaffarabad, the battered capital of Pakistani Kashmir. Hardly an inch is vacant as tents, rickety shelters and half-destroyed houses jostle for space along a narrow strip of land between the steep mountains and a rushing, slate-blue river. That matters not to Muhammad Rafiq, who loves his last buffalo so much he gave it a private tent. 'It's important to keep the sun off its back,' explained the farmer, gesturing to the animal standing imperiously in the shade, its fleshy chops dripping with water. 'And anyway, my children like the milk.' But if there was anything funny about the scene it was lost on Mr Rafiq, his sense of humour dulled by a year of living rough. Last year's earthquake crushed his house, his livelihood and very nearly his leg, he said, pointing to a plastered limb that refuses to heal. The following winter was rough on his mother he said, indicating the wizened 95-year-old woman curled onto a bed beside him, coughing softly from a bad bout of tuberculosis. Two months ago monsoon rains destroyed his makeshift home in the mountains, forcing him to take his family - and last buffalo - to this wretched, overcrowded camp on the edge of Muzaffarabad. Now all he cares about is going home - if only he knew where that was. 'The government says my house is in the 'red zone' so I can't live there any more,' he sighed, raising his voice as a baby wailed nearby. 'Nowhere to stay, nowhere to go - there is no beauty left in life any more, just frustration.' It is no small miracle that so many people survived the aftermath of last year's fearsome October 8 earthquake. A frantic, helicopter-driven emergency operation by Pakistani and foreign aid workers through last winter - combined with mercifully clement weather - staved off a much-feared second wave of deaths. But one year later tens of thousands of survivors are on the cusp of yet another perilous experience. Of the 400,000 homes damaged or destroyed in the earthquake only 17% have been rebuilt, according to to the Pakistan government. Meanwhile the harsh Himalayan winter is closing in - the scorching summer temperatures are slowly sliding towards the days of 10-foot-deep drifts and bone-chilling nights. Ominously, the first snows have already dusted the highest peaks, weeks earlier than normal. Some 66,000 families are living in makeshift shelters, according to the Red Cross; Oxfam puts the number in tents and rough shelters as high as 1.8 million. Widows, the disabled, and those living in high mountain villages are among the most vulnerable groups. 'You can't imagine what last winter was like,' said Safia Bibi, a widow who still weeps when she remembers how her husband was crushed to death under a shop. 'I had to clutch my children to my chest to keep them warm. It was hell.' Yesterday was a warm, cheery morning in Muzaffarabad. Children in pressed uniforms walked to school, men meandered into the bazaar, women started their chores - much the same scene as preceded the magnitude 7.8 tremor that rippled across north-eastern Pakistan and a corner of India, tipping villages onto valley floors, crushing houses like tin cans and killing 73,000 people. The multi-billion pound Pakistani-international aid effort has been widely praised for its achievements, but the final estimation is far from complete. Most rubble has been swept from the streets and landslides have been cleared, but under the surface lies a highly complex and problematic emergency. Public health remains precarious because of broken underground sewage channels and lost water sources. The weather is unpredictable as ever. Where the winter was blessed, last summer was a curse. Heavier than expected monsoon rains sent sheets of rubble, mud and water tumbling onto roads and camps filled with refugees. At least 24 people died and new roads, water schemes and emergency works were washed away. Pakistan's government has been ambitious in its rebuilding plans, perhaps too much so. Compensation payments to hundreds of thousands of homeless families have been staggered in the hope of forcing them to rebuild their houses quickly. But a host of problems have conspired against the plan - bureaucratic delays, poor communication, the lack of land deeds and the sheer scale of the challenge. 'It was never going to be easy,' said Shaheen Chughtai of Oxfam. 'You have to remember it took Japan years to rebuild 140,000 homes after the Kobe earthquake in 1995. Pakistan is looking at rebuilding at least 450,000 homes but without the same wealth, experience, expertise or institutions.' Balakot, a Frontier Province town that was razed to the ground, was declared a 'red zone' and unfit for human habitation. But plans to move it to a safer location have been frozen for months. President Pervez Musharraf has also courted controversy in his approach. Yesterday he asked foreign donors for funds on top of the $6.7bn (£4.5bn) already pledged - days after he met George Bush to negotiate the purchase of a fleet of F-16 fighter jets worth billions of pounds. Mr Musharraf has also refused to back down on his support for the Islamic charity Jamaat- ud-Dawa. Although JUD was involved in earthquake relief from an early stage, the US branded the charity a terrorist entity earlier this year for its links to Lashkar-i-Taiba, a Kashmiri group that India blames for July's Mumbai train bombings. But yesterday staff at the 38-bed Muzaffarabad hospital defended their work. 'We will not stop on anybody's orders, including America's,' said Basharat Ullah. 'They can call us terrorists, but we are here to serve humanity.' Meanwhile the survivors are trying with admirable ingenuity to get on with life. In Chella district, north of Muzaffarabad, satellite dishes made from colanders and bicycle rims poke from tent roofs. While some residents have no toilets, others have televisions, fridges and even computers, usually donated by relatives living in the major cities. Free electricity comes courtesy of a local gun factory. 'If the refugees need metalwork, we will also do it for free. It is our humanitarian duty,' said Muhammad Hussain, a gunsmith with a toothy smile, brandishing an ornately decorated pump-action shotgun. The October 8 earthquake measured 7.6 on the Richter scale. It killed more than 73,000 people, injured at least as many and left 3.5 million homeless. Some 5,857 educational institutions were damaged or destroyed, as were 585 medical facilities and 4,000 miles of road. The single worst hit town was Balakot, where an estimated 8,000 of the 30,000 residents died. About 5,500 women were widowed. Last winter the worst affected families flooded into tented camps that housed 300,000 people at one stage. The camp population has since dropped to 35,000 but could rise by 20,000 as winter starts to bite, according to the UN. International donors have pledged $6.7bn for reconstruction efforts, about one-third in grants and the rest in loans. The Pakistan government is giving homeowners £1,500 each to rebuild or repair 450,000 homes. So far more than 370,000 families have received funds and 30,000 builders have been trained in quake-proof techniques.