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Saturday, November 19, 2005

Pakistan faces winter of death and despair - [Sunday Herald]

Pakistan faces winter of death and despair - [Sunday Herald]Pakistan faces winter of death and despair

From David Pratt, Foreign Editor, in Muzaffarabad

THEÊscaleÊofÊtheÊsufferingÊis unimaginable. More than three million people homeless across oneÊofÊtheÊremotest,Êmost mountainous places on the planet are inÊaÊbattleÊforÊsurvivalÊthatÊisÊgetting grimmer by the minute.

Journey for hours out of Pakistan's worst-hit cities ofÊMuzaffarabad and Balakot,ÊalongÊcrumblingÊmountain roads of unending landslides flanked Êby sheer thousand-foot drops, and you come across this scattered mass of the poorest and most vulnerable.

Among them, countless families who have lost breadwinners; children without parents; the elderly left alone. Traumatised, hungry, sick, cold and afraid, theyÊhuddleÊunderÊleakyÊtents,Êtarpaulins, cardboard ÐÊanythingÊthatÊmightÊhelpÊ keep out the rain and nightly subzero temperatures that prey on the weakest.

Yet for these, the survivors of last month'sÊearthquakeÊthatÊdevastated northern Pakistan and crushed to death moreÊthanÊ87,000Êpeople,Êanother scarcely believable disaster looms over what remains of their lives, as a bitter winter begins to take its own terrible toll.

ÒIt's the children I'm most worried about,Ó warns Zulqarnain Iqbal, team leader for the humanitarian agency Concern Worldwide, which has been working in some of the most inaccessible and worst-hit areas. ÒIn the camps you hear them coughing and many are already sufferingÊfromÊcoldÊandÊrespiratory-related diseases. Without proper shelter who knows how many will die?Ó

This is a region where any day now, snowfalls on the mountains can be up to 15ft deep. Drifts of 8-10ft are commonplace in tiny communities like the village of Mahar, which lies almost 10,000ft up in the Himalaya, and where I met formerÊschoolteacher Mohammed Miskeen.

ÒWe need steel sheets, food and winter clothes quickly, if we are to get through the next six months,Ó he tells me, as we sit on the flattened roof and crushed beams of what had been his home. Not far away, the higher peaks are already coated with snow and ice and the air is bitter, even in the midday sun. Would it not be better for him to move down off the mountain to cities like Muzaffarabad, I ask.

ÒYou have seen the place for yourself, it too has been destroyed. Is it any better than here, where we know how to survive if we have the right materials?Ó he replies.

Miskeen, like so many of these proud mountain people, insists they have their dignity and are not begging for help, they just need tools and supplies to survive the coming winter onslaught Ð and just possibly rebuild their lives.

ÒThis is our mother earth, where our family and ancestors are buried, we can never leave this place,Ó he says. But even for these hardy people, conditions are proving too harsh. Many have already made their way down to lower altitudes andÊtheÊcitiesÊofÊMuzaffarabadÊand Balakot,ÊtoÊjoinÊtheÊarmyÊofÊurban dwellers camped out in squalid tent sites next to the ruins of their homes along the banks of the rivers Neelum and Kunhar.

InÊtheÊBelaÊNoorshahÊdistrictÊof Muzaffarabad, on the edge of the River Neelum, lies a sprawling camp where more than 2000 people have sought sanctuaryÊamongÊrocks,ÊgravelÊand stagnant pools of filth. Here, there is no proper sanitation and families eat what they can get while living in a mire of garbage and human faeces.

ÒThis is a cholera epidemic waiting to happen,Ó one aid worker tells me. Like so many other relief organisations here, hisÊagencyÊisÊoverwhelmedÊbyÊthe demandsÊcountlessÊcampsÊlikeÊthis place on their abilities and resources.

Not far from Bela Noorshah, in a camp called Mera Tinoliya, I am approached by an elderly woman with three children. In tears, she tells me the two boys and girl are her grandchildren, and that their parents were killed in the earthquake.

ÒI've tried to look after them, but I'm alone and have nothing. Please take them with you to people who can give them what they need,Ó she pleads, as the youngsters begin to cry after realising what she is asking.

How many more families there are like them, left without the means or the will to cope, is anyone's guess.

Most of last month here was spent looking for the dead and giving them a decent burial. Now it is the day-to-day struggle for life that consumes those that the quake spared.

With most of the TV cameras now gone, the plight of these people has all but dropped off the world's radar. If such complacency continues, the death toll from this second winter disaster will be catastrophic.

ÒThis is the moment that you must sacrifice for us,Ó was how one survivor, an elderly man living in the ruins of Muzaffarabad City, put it to me yesterday. ÒIt is a question of basic humanity.Ó

20 November 2005

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