Christian Science Monitor

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 at 12:12 pm EST


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.

The Irish Times

'If nothing changes here, people are going to give up. Then they will die'

Ramita Navai
in Muzaffarabad 

November 21, 2005 

A thick, white cloud rises from the grounds of the Old University camp in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-Kashmir that was devastated by the earthquake that killed more than 86,000 people.

More than 2,000 survivors are crammed into the old sports stadium of the university, which has been reduced to towering mounds of crumbling rubble. Clusters of survivors huddle around small fires desperately warming themselves as the bitter cold night descends. They have run out of bits of wood to burn and so now they burn rubbish.

A potent mix of raw sewage, urine, sickness and the toxic fumes of burning plastic stings the eyes and burns the nose. There are no toilets here, only holes in the ground. With a recent outbreak of over 400 cases of acute watery diahoorea, a virulent condition that can be seen as a precursor to cholera, the residents have been reduced to defecating along the camp walls.

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The Irish Times

Now the cold takes its toll on a people clinging to life

Villagers who survived the Kashmir earthquake now fear they are caught in a death-trap, writes Ramita Navai

The village elders had walked for miles, over mountains and across rivers from hamlets and villages scattered across the remote Lipa Valley in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, to make an appeal to a visiting UN delegation.

"We are part of humanity. We are part of the civilised world. We are not animals. We need help," said Sayeed in perfect English, clutching a scrap of paper on which he had noted their requests. It was a short list, but one that means the difference between life and death: tents, food, medical aid.

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The Irish Times

Race against time for survivors as Himalayan winter looms

Ramita Navai
in Muzaffarabad

November 10, 2005 

Pakistan: The pungent smell of rotting bodies hangs thick in the air in Medina Market in the centre of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir, writes Ramita Navai in Muzaffarabad

"I know there's a family under there," says Nadim Mir holding a scarf over his nose to block out the stench. "But what can we do? We need bulldozers - we can't do this with our bare hands."

Muzaffarabad, in the lush Khaghan Valley, was razed in the October 8th earthquake that killed over 73,000 people. All that remains now is a tangle of destruction. Mounds of rubble, twisted metal, crumbled bricks and broken glass have turned the city into a shapeless mass with few navigable roads.

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