As we await Christmas, millions made homeless by the earthquake await a merciless winter, says Simon Roughneen
BAGH — The drive across Azad Jammu and Kashmir would ordinarily be a compelling experience for any traveller. The 10,000 foot-high Himalayan foothills provide a backdrop of stunning beauty. Pine trees cover the rocky slopes, and along the horizon, the snow-peaks of the Karakorum and Himalayas emerge between the lower peaks in this desolate area of northern Pakistan
But these snow-peaks are a harbinger of a different reality for northern Pakistan. What United Nations boss Kofi Annan terms ‘the merciless Himalayan winter’ has arrived – with snow already piling on densely-populated higher ground, hundreds of cases of pneumonia, and, children dying. Another harbinger: on Tuesday 6 last, the Pakistani Met Office forecast an even harsher-than-usual winter for Kashmir and the northern areas of the country.
Ireland and Europe felt the snap of winter recently, with snow causing disruptions to a part of the world blessed with sophisticated infrastructure, modern transport and communications facilities, and a much-vaunted social economy. Sadly, the deaths of homeless people were reported in Paris and Brussels.
But in Northern Pakistan, most people do not even have a house now. And the winter that has just started will make Europe’s recent wintery spell look like a rough autumn day by comparison.
Since the October 8 earthquake, over 3 million people have been contemplating how to survive, with the snow in the distance soon to arrive at what used to be their front doors, in heaps of anything from 4-10 feet outside their tents and makeshift shelters.
During a three hour drive from Bagh, where 75% of buildings were destroyed, to Muzafferabad, scene of 90% destruction, lay saw countryside of almost ethereal beauty. However just about every building within view has been ruined.
This same countryside will be covered in snow within days. Temperatures will drop to minus 10, maybe minus 15 degrees Celsius. Many roads will be impassable.
And time is running out. The challenges for relief and humanitarian organisations, and more importantly, for the hundreds of thousands, if not more, who remain vulnerable, will be as insurmountable as some of the Himalayan peaks in the background.
Despite their predicament, despite the uncertain future, the people here remain resilient, dignified and resourceful. Not to mention friendly and gracious. Visitors are inundated with offers of chai, the local sweet tea often made with freshly-drawn buffalo milk.
Khaled Mahmoud, an elected representative in the district of Pader Mastu, near the city of Bagh, told us that ‘we Kashmiris are grateful to the international community, the people of Ireland, to aid agencies for helping us in our time of great sorrow’.
Mahmoud lost his wife and four of his five children in the earthquake.
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 to survive. And they know that it is not going to be enough as things stand.
Vast pledges to the tune of US$5.4billion were made at a donor reconstruction conference two weekends ago. But this money is mostly for rebuilding infrastructure and livelihoods after the winter. It is also just pledges, not hard cash handed over.
And while rebuilding is of course necessary, what use is pledging over US$5 billion to rebuild, when there is not enough money to save lives now?
To put things in perspective, the life-saving relief resources sought by the UN amounts to 10% of the money promised for reconstruction. Only 35% of the life-saving relief money has been handed over.
Thus the snow promises little but imminent death to those who cannot get adequate shelter. It is estimated that between 350,000 and 380,000 people will remain at their home areas above 5,000 feet. They need more winterised shelter – tents, corrugated iron sheeting, tarpaulins. The UN and the International Organisation for Migration believe that up to 80% of tents in use at the moment are not suitable for the imminent harsh winter.
So send them down the mountains to camps, you might say. But people are constantly telling us of their attachment to this area, to their homeplace, their land, their livestock.
And this is not just sentimentality. If people congregate in camps, 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.
Irish aid agency GOAL is delivering a variety of shelter materials to village areas at heights of up to 7200 feet, part of an overall programme to feed and shelter over 7500 families. The idea is to allow people to remain in their home area if possible, if they wish to do so.
As Mohammed Iqbal, who lost his wife and 2 daughters in the earthquake said, ‘If we have enough shelter, tents, blankets, tin sheets, we can manage’. There is timber available in the tree-adorned slopes, and sadly, from collapsed homesteads and buildings.
However, that ‘if’ applies to so many people, and with the slow response and continued lack of funding of the relief effort generally, now is really a big ‘if’ for many of the vulnerable.
Some people have access to other homegrown foodstuffs to complement the flour, oil, pulses that they receive from agencies. However many say that it is necessary to preposition food stocks in higher areas that will be inaccessible once it snows. Combined with the cold, malnutrition will heighten the risk of disease, especially among the young and the elderly.
But there are too many ifs. Too much left to chance for so many people. Left to chance because the world has not provided for them in their time of need.
As we move into the Christmas season at home, we will recall the emotional outpouring of giving that came about with last years’ Indian Ocean tsunami.
We need a similar outpouring now. Otherwise we will see in our Christmas and New Year with another spate of images of human suffering from a faraway place. Only this time we will know we had ample opportunity to avert the catastrophe. That time is now.Show