Done Everest. Next: earthquake relief

Mountaineers are helping to locate and bring aid to Pakistan's high-altitude earthquake survivors.

By Ramita NavaiContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / December 21, 2005 


With no road access and few spots for a helicopter to land easily, the Machiara Valley in northern Pakistan had yet to see any relief supplies for two months after the devastating earthquake.

That changed when a team of mountaineers traversed remote valleys and climbed the steep flanks of the Himalayas to reach survivors here.

Jean-Philipe Bourgeouis and Claude-Andre Nadon lugged piles of tarpaulin sheets and blankets on their backs, up a rocky, steep track - without benefit of porters or mules. The pair of French-Canadians have worked as mountain guides, and between them have scaled Everest, K2, and Kilimanjaro.

Now they and 12 other mountaineers face a daunting challenge of a different sort. They have been sent by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to find unreached villages, assess their needs, and locate helicopter landing sites - and to do so as quickly as possible before winter descends.

"When you look around the valley all you see is people who haven't been reached. They're sleeping out in the cold. And it's cold, very cold," says Bourgeois. His comrade, Nadon, says, "We've been focusing on the most remote places because these are places that aid gets to last."

Getting supplies to survivors in the highest areas has proved one of the toughest challenges for relief groups. According to a new UN report, all survivors living above 5,000 feet have received shelter. The Army says it is building 6,000 temporary shelters a day and the report predicted the combined efforts of aid agencies, local authorities, and the military will have provided non-tent shelter for at least 595,000 people.

The focus of earthquake relief is now shifting to nearly 2 million people below the snow line, says UN chief coordinator Jan Vandermoortele. However, many aid workers say that thousands at high altitudes remain without adequate protection heading into the winter. Some NGOs and aid agencies are still sending aid workers up to high altitudes. The IOM has scouted out dozens of villages above 5,000 feet in the Muzaffarabad vicinity.

"People high up just don't have shelter. They're sleeping under the stars," says Maggie Tookey from the Britain-based charity Edinburgh Direct, who has been working in the village of Bheri in the north of Muzaffarabad district.

"If they do have shelter, it's some bits of wood and material strung together, it's just not adequate," she adds. "The big problem is reaching them."

It's difficult to move about even at the lower elevations. Just Tuesday, 20 people died when a bus skidded off a road 30 miles southeast of Muzaffarabad.

Many of the high-up villages are not accessible by road. Aid groups sometimes struggle without maps in this militarily sensitive region. And aerial reconnaissance cannot determine the number of survivors in devastated villages.

As soon as Bourgeouis and Nadon arrive in the Machiara valley, they pitch a tent and begin their assessment.

In the villages that dot the region, the devastation is complete. The tumbled wreckage of homes trickles down the side of mountains in a tangle of uprooted earth and crumbled debris. The green land is pockmarked by gaping black cavities, the sunken remains of the traditional timber homes where the huge mud roofs came crashing down, driving everything beneath them deep into the ground.

Survivors of the South Asia earthquake that killed some 80,000 people and left 3.5-million homeless have cobbled together a few makeshift shelters from bits of wood and old shawls.

One villager, Kasem Jan, sleeps on the frosty earth by the collapsed ruin that was once her home in the hamlet of Duliard, perched 7,500 feet high. At night she cradles her small children in her arms for warmth. They have lost much of their clothing in the quake, leaving them with little more than rags against the freezing nights.

"It's so cold at night. I'm scared my children won't survive," she says. Seven member of Kasem's family were killed by the quake and her child and brother are still buried under the rubble.

"I've tried to get them out, but it's too hard, I can't do it with my hands," she says, starting to cry.

Like most villagers, Kasem's cattle were killed and her farming land ruined. The quake also dried all the mountain springs and now the villagers must trek up a perilous track to another valley to fetch water, which they carry on metal urns balanced on their heads. The journey takes several hours.

Many survivors in the high valleys hit by the quake are worried they will lose their land or livestock if they go. Some don't have the money to make a journey. Others, says an IOM official, face pressure from feudal landlords to stay, or do not want to leave behind family graves.

The bitter winter is slowly starting to unfold, in an onslaught of snow and wind. The villagers monitor the encroaching snow that edges its way down from the white peaks with trepidation.

Pneumonia is slowly taking hold, according to Zulfkar Ali from the World Wildlife Fund, the first doctor to have arrived in Machiara, and he worries about the children. "This is a remote place and there's no doctor," he says.

Bourgeouis and Nadon meet with village elders who spread the word that help has finally arrived. Villagers queue patiently for the aid that could save their lives - a blanket and a sheet of tarpaulin.

The villagers do not want the climbers to leave and come with gifts of walnuts and eggs - all that they have. But there are too many other villagers in need of help. "We haven't even got to the valley on the other side of here," says Nadon, nodding towards the endless mountains that disappear into the distance. Now that the village has been scouted, other IOM workers, other aid groups, or the Pakistani military will bring larger relief shipments.

In a matter of weeks most of this region will cut off from the outside world by over six feet of snow. "What will happen to us then?" asks a village elder.

A year after quake, Iran city struggles to rise above the rubble

By Ramita NavaiContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / January 5, 2005 


The palm trees still rise from the Iranian desert in the oasis city of Bam. But their dusty leaves now overlook a shattered city, razed by a devastating earthquake that killed more than 30,000 people in 10 seconds.

From a distance, not much seems to have changed since Dec. 26, 2003, the day of the 6.5 magnitude temblor. Collapsed buildings still line the streets. Those families who survived in the center of town have not returned. Caramel-colored dust coats everything.

But out of the devastation, this city, once middle class, is slowly coming back to life. Gone is the smell of death that hung in the air for months, as well as the tents that dotted the city. Some 75,000 survivors live in prefab cabins near town.

Makeshift shops line the main streets - a grocery in an old army tent, a barber shop with cracked mirrors salvaged from the ruins of a salon.

Yet a year after nearly 90 percent of Bam was leveled, just $17 million of $1 billion in foreign-aid pledges has come in, says President Mohammed Khatami. Five percent of the houses have been rebuilt - underscoring challenges Southeast Asian countries may face in rebuild- ing poor and remote areas devastated by last week's earthquake and tsunami.

Aid workers are pleased with the rate of progress in Bam and say rebuilding a city from scratch will take at least three years - if not longer.

"Yes, reconstruction has been slower than we expected, but you can't rebuild a city overnight. Not even in a year - that's impossible," says Patrick Parsons, a project coordinator for the British-based humanitarian organization Merlin, who has been in Bam for the past year.

Iranian officials have ambitious plans for the city, which was home to Arg-e Bam, a 2,000-year-old citadel that drew thousands of tourists yearly.

The government has enlisted the help of a Dutch architect who specializes in designing "child friendly" cities to incorporate more playgrounds and parks and a teachers' resource center. The plan is to consult the children of Bam for their vision of a perfect city.

Along with the prospects for physical improvements in the city, social changes are emerging as well. Many women in the conservative city - impelled by the loss of many male heads of household - have left the confines of their homes to run between housing associations, ministry buildings, and banks to get papers stamped and new ID cards verified in the protracted quest for aid. Out of sheer practicality, more are also shedding the tentlike black chador in favor of a head scarf.

Rapid first response

In the days following Bam's earthquake, more than 1,600 aid workers from 44 countries streamed in to help with the rescue and relief operation. For the first time since the 1979-81 hostage crisis, an American government presence was allowed, with a team of American search and rescue workers drawing excited crowds.

Tents and medical supplies were airlifted in, and experts from the World Health Organization and nongovernmental organizations set about dealing with health and sanitation needs. Everything from "school-in-a-box" kits to hand tools for clearing rubble was distributed.

But now, the sprawling international camp on the grounds of the old sports stadium has been closed down and only a handful of international agencies remain.

Some survivors are finding the pace of reconstruction hard to accept.

"Look around. It's been a year. How many new buildings do you see? Where has all the money gone?" says Hassan, echoing the sentiments of many.

He spent six months living in a tent with his young family and was one of hundreds of Bamis who took to the streets in an angry protest in the spring, denouncing the relief effort as too slow.

Indeed, a key challenge has been that former residents of the city are only just coming to terms with what has happened to them. For the past year, many have been in a state of shock and anger - something that has spurred what doctors and psychologists say is a growing drug problem.

The sweet smell of eucalyptus and orange blossom that used to fill the alleys of this ancient city has been replaced by the thick reek of opium that wafts out of shelters. Thousands of Bamis, doctors say, are turning to drugs to forget horrific memories and ease the pain of daily life.

"It's a really big problem. And now people are also turning to prescription drugs," says Mohammed Abeeyat, a clinical psychologist for the Iranian Red Crescent Society, the relief agency.

Dr. Abeeyat, who sees up to 10 patients a day, says post- traumatic stress syndrome is the biggest problem that survivors face. In response, Iran's Ministry of Health and UNICEF are running extensive psychosocial counseling programs.

Talking to children

Under the palm trees in the village of Baravat on the outskirts of Bam groups of children sit crosslegged in group therapy sessions organized by the Ministry of Health. Amid the playground banter talk of the "balloon technique" emerges - therapy speak for a breathing technique to help children deal with anxiety attacks. Many of the young ones heard their families screaming for help under the rubble and listened as their cries faded away.

"I've learned to deal with my bad memories," says 11-year old Azam. "Therapy has taught me that whenever I get those bad memories I should put them in a box, lock the box and put the key away."

Azam lost both her parents in the earthquake. She heard them calling out to her and dug at the rubble, but her little hands could not cope.

Hope for the future

Seventeen-year-old Reza considers himself one of the fortunate ones - he lost "only" three members of his family.

"I feel the government has looked after me - I've got a prefabricated shelter and I'm sure that one day I'll have permanent shelter," he says.

Seven members of his family now live in a 20-by-13-foot shelter. Like most survivors, he has not gotten a job. Being indoors all day with nothing to do gets him down.

"They say they're going to rebuild Bam into a better city. I don't doubt they will rebuild it, but Bam will never be the same again," he says. "Maybe bigger and newer, but never better."

For most survivors in Bam, it is simply a coincidence that the earthquake and tsunami in Asia happened on the same day - at almost the same hour - as their own.

The residents of Bam say that they will be forgotten now that they have been eclipsed by a bigger earthquake, but they say they feel a connection with the Asian survivors.

"I suppose nature works in cycles," says Reza. "But I know exactly what the Asians are going through. Everyone in Bam does."