Winding down from over 7000 feet in the Himalayan foothills, you wouldn’t know they were there until you almost stood on them, digging up the recently-laid turf with your boots.
But it is difficult to forget that sites, and sights, such as this are now common across northern Pakistan.
17,000 of the estimated 80,000 plus dead from the October 8 earthquake are children, many of whom were crushed in their schools as the buildings came down around them.
At our feet are the plastic-sheeted graves of three sisters, 7, 9, and 11 years old. With debris and rubble strewn across the area, already a maze of rocks, forest and twisting footpaths, it would be all too easy to miss this improvised cemetery.
With the post-quake pre-winter relief effort now a race against time, relief workers literally race from site to site to do all that is possible to save lives.
It is all too easy to step on these almost-invisible makeshift graves as result.
All three were killed when their school in the town of Malot collapsed. It took their family three weeks to locate all three bodies and have them interred on family ground, close to where their house once stood.
Then, as we are about to proceed on our way down the mountain-side, we hear a shout ‘Hello’. A man runs toward us, waving us to wait. He has not yet received any material assistance from anybody, in his remote mountain abode. He runs out of a pile of timbers, rocks, the rubble of the hardened mud that made up the walls of so many houses in the whole earthquake zone.
Given the terrain, the altitude, relief agencies must work around the clock to find out what people and need, and where, and who needs these things most and earliest. Iqbal, the man who ran to us up the mountain-side, is clearly one of the neediest.
The mixture of loss, desperation in his eyes is all too familiar to anyone who has spent time in these ruined Kashmiri mountains and valleys. Equally familiar however, is, the determination to improve his and family’s lot, and the will to live that has come out of all the death and destvuction.
With the Himalayan winter coming, however, they will need a lot more than just the will to live.
At a press conference held in Islamabad UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan deplored the ‘weak and tardy’ financial support for the emergency relief effort to date.
“Clearly, the sheer impact of the quake is still emerging,” Mr. Annan said of the event which is so far estimated to have killed some 80,000 people, injured over 100,000 and left up to 3 million homeless.
As things stand, the UN appeal for emergency funds had received hard cash measuring just over 30% of what is needed.
Now, with vast amounts of money pledged to the relief and reconstruction of the quake-stricken zone, the pressure remains on to see promises converted to hard cash, and in turn cash converted quickly to resources on the ground to help the vulnerable.
And not only can we get the vital supplies of shelter, food, blankets, health items to the vulnerable, we, as Sayid Hezad, a businessman from the Kashmiri regional capital Muzafferabad told me, ’as well as supplying us, you have given us courage, and morale.’
But the question is, will we have done enough before winter? Enough to ensure that we do not see many more makeshift graves? Enough to ensure that all those like Iqbal, who live in places that are remote, almost inaccessible in bad weather, get what they need to survive?
With the harsh Himalayan winter looming, children are among the most vulnerable to the freezing rain, heavy snow, and high altitude of the region.
This year, they will have to stay in tents, or improvised tin shelters – if they are lucky.
But to ensure that everybody receives what they need, the relief effort must receive the resources it needs. As things stand, pledges not withstanding, the danger of overstretch is clear.
Seeing the 4 foot long patches of plastic covering the graves of these children seems like a clear enough message to us all. Act now, or we will be stepping on many more of these graves across the valleys of Kashmir before long. The difference is, by then we will have all the time in the world to think about what we let happen.Show