The drive across Azad Kashmir would ordinarily be a compelling experience for any traveller. The 10,000-foot (3,000-meter) Himalayan foothills provide a backdrop of stunning beauty. Pine trees cover the rocky slopes, and on the horizon, the snow-peaks of the Karakorum and Himalayas emerge between the lower peaks.
But these snow-peaks are a harbinger of a different reality for the people of northern Pakistan. In the five weeks since the October 8 earthquake, the 3 million homeless have been contemplating how to survive what will be a harsh winter, where the distant snow will soon pile up in banks of 3-12 feet (1-4 meters) outside their tents and makeshift shelters.
During a three-hour drive from Bagh, a city where 75 percent of buildings were destroyed, to Muzafferabad, scene of 90 percent destruction, we saw countryside of almost ethereal beauty. But just about every building within view has been ruined.
This same countryside will be a solid white landscape in two or three weeks. Temperatures will drop to minus 10 degrees or maybe minus 15 degrees Celsius (5-14 degrees Fareinheit). Many roads will be impassable.
Despite their predicament, despite the uncertain future, survivors are hardy and resilient, dignified and resourceful. They are also friendly and gracious. Visitors are under a constant barrage of friendly fire – in this case offers of the local-style chai, a sweet tea made with freshly drawn buffalo milk.
NOT ENOUGH TO SURVIVE
Kashmiris have lived in this area for centuries, and know what is needed to survive. When we deliver vital food and shelter items to the needy, they know what they need. And they know that they are not going to get enough as things stand.
After touring the disaster zone, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan spoke at a press conference in Islamabad. He said: “There is no doubt that the donor response has been weak. Within weeks of the tsunami disaster, we were oversubscribed. Now, almost six weeks after the earthquake, we have about 30 percent.”
With so many people vulnerable, and such adverse climate and terrain, an overstretched and underfunded relief effort means that unless there is a major injection of hard cash and resources over the next few days, Pakistan and the world will be facing a damage-limitation exercise over the next few weeks and months.
The snow promises imminent death to those who cannot get adequate shelter. People are constantly telling us about their attachment to this area, to their home place, their land and their livestock.
We delivered a variety of shelter materials to village areas at heights of 7,200 feet (2,200 meters), part of an overall programme to feed and shelter over 100,000 people.
The idea is to allow people to remain in their home area if possible, if they wish to do so. If people congregate in camps, though some are organised and well-run, the challenges posed by the winter will be compounded by communicable disease, social tensions, and domestic and sexual violence. Life will be tough enough for these people as things are.
As Mohammed Iqbal, who lost his wife and two daughters in the earthquake, said: “If we have enough shelter, tents, blankets, tin sheets, we can manage.”
Timber is available on the tree-covered slopes, and people have access to home-grown foodstuffs to complement the flour, oil, pulses that they receive from agencies.
But that “if” applies to so many people, and with the slow response and continued lack of funding of the relief effort generally, it really is a big “if” for many of the vulnerable.
‘OPERATION WINTER RACE’
“Operation Winter Race” is the name of a U.N. effort to supply 10,000 shelter repair kits to vulnerable areas that have been inaccessible by road. Material is airlifted and dropped from helicopters into places such as the Neelum Valley, where roads remain blocked by rubble and debris.
NATO has a field hospital and an engineering team deployed in Kashmir, and locals and agencies are granted the novel sight of Spanish and Polish troops from the Western military alliance driving around this disputed territory, in convoy with the Pakistani Army, 10 miles (16 km) from the India-Pakistan Line of Control.
Meanwhile, the World Food Programme (WFP) is sending specialist units of “quake jumpers” – mountaineering and survival experts who jump from helicopters to assess areas that have not been accessed.
But the affected population is over 3 million, and these creative, dynamic efforts have not made up the deficit in an under-funded relief effort. The almost $6 billion now pledged by the international community needs to become operational very quickly if we are to make up for lost time.
Kamran Ahmad rushed home from his wife and job in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, when he watched the devastation on the TV. When he reached his home village of Bess Bagla, 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) up in the Himalayan foothills, he found his 20-year-old brother sitting on the ruins of the local mosque.
He found his mother and grandmother in the rubble of their family home, once a three-storey building with balconies and a shop on the ground floor. They had been dead for five days. His four younger sisters remain under the ruins of the village school.
Now he is focused on helping his younger brother survive the winter. But they need tin sheeting to protect their tent from the weight of the snow that will fall. They fear the onset of winter in their area, but they do not want to be corralled into a low-lying town or camp, unsure of the hygiene conditions and fearful about what will happen to their possessions and land.
Kofi Annan was in town over the weekend. His visit was a huge success, helping to drum up the promises of $5.8 billion to rebuild after the winter.
The huge figure pledged must now be translated into cash and resources, and quickly. The feel-good factor coming out of the weekend conference must not lull anyone into a sense of complacency.
After witnessing the shattered beauty of post-earthquake Kashmir, it is clear that reconstruction needs to take second place to saving lives now. There is not a lot of time.Show