She had thirteen seconds, we have at least thirteen days – Reuters Alertnet

Maheeda Muzafar wraps her shawl around her face, despite the 22 degree heat.

It is rare for women in Pakistani Azad Kashmir to speak with outsiders. For the villagers of Pader Mastu, for Maheeda, for the westerners present, the encounter is a novelty.

But in the month since the south Asia earthquake, life has been far from normal for the people of this region.

Row of shops at Malot,collapsed after the earthquake (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

On October 8 last, Maheeda and her husband lay sleeping in their mud-built house, 1800m up on a Kashmiri valley.

At 8:11am, as the ground shook them from their slumber, they ran for their lives. Maheeda made it through the front door before her husband, only to turn around and see him crushed by the collapsing debris. ‘I turned and I saw him covered. He slipped while we ran to the door.’

Donna Smith heads up the GOAL relief operation in the Bagh district, close to the earthquake epicentre. She said: ‘This earthquake has been a tragedy for everyone. But the tragedy will continue, even get worse, in the next few weeks. Time is running out fast. We are in the foothills of the Himalayas, a severe winter is coming, and hundreds of thousands of people are not guaranteed adequate shelter.’

Very few of Kashmir’s mud-built houses survived this earthquake. With roofs supported by heavy timber beams culled from the timber woodlands that fill Kashmir’s sublime mountain valleys, the 80,000 plus who died in the earthquake had little chance to escape as their walls – and lives – tumbled down around them.

Last December, a huge tidal wave took five minutes to wreak destruction along coastlines of Sri Lanka, Banda Aceh in Indonesia, India, and elsewhere.

It took just thirteen seconds for the south Asian earthquake to exact its toll. For Maheeda, and two other newly-widowed women sitting by her side, life without a husband in Pakistani Kashmir will now be uncertain.

Like the rest of this disputed territory, Maheeda is Muslim, and the resigned yet optimistic refrain of ‘Inshallah’ (God Willing) accompanies every assessment of the post-earthquake situation.

And it is not that Maheeda lacks resolve. Her two daughters are in sghool, and she told GOAL that ‘I will get them brought up, educated, but I have no source of income.’

Now she and her extended family live in one tent, which is currently sheltering 13 people. Supplied by the local Jamaa Islamiya party, the tent will not be enough to enable Maheeda and her two children survive the winter.

Humanitarian agency GOAL is working in her remote mountain village to remedy this. By the end of the week, Maheeda will receive a winterised tent, groundsheeting and a plastic tarpaulin. With an estimated 18 inches of snow due in 2-3 weeks, Maheeda will need all the assistance she can get.

All her five brothers’ houses collapsed, altogether ten men died within the extended family.

Maheeda said, ‘they cannot help me now, they are in the same situation’.

GOALs Donna Smith added: ‘Unless the relief effort in general is better resourced and is accelerated over the next two weeks, vulnerable individuals and groups such as Maheeda will be in an extremely precarious position over the coming winter.’

It took thirteen seconds for this earthquake to kill over 80,000, including 17,000 children. Thirteen seconds – one more and Maheeda’s husband might have made it through the front door.

Now, Maheeda and hundreds of thousands of other Kashmiris have perhaps fifteen days before winter sets in.

The world has a similar window of opportunity to meet this test of its compassion and commitment to humanitarianism.

For Maheeda, and for the people of Kashmir, the tests will be far more exacting.

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