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After the Quake, the Cold

Ignoring calls to move to a lower altitude, one Pakistani family plans to brave subzero temperatures and start rebuilding now.

November 08, 2005|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

BAGH, Pakistan — At the first hint of the cold Himalayan dawn, Mohammed Latif awakens to the whimpering of his 3-year-old daughter, Keren. She wants him to relight the hearth fire that died out hours ago inside the dirt-floor hovel made of rocks, tarp and burlap where the family has lived since last month's killer earthquake.

The quake destroyed the wood and concrete home that Latif shared with his wife and four young children in the hills above this provincial city in the Pakistan-controlled portion of Kashmir. The home had simple amenities such as wooden floors, running water and indoor plumbing. Each family member had a comfortable bed, and there was an electric heater for frigid mornings like this one.

Then came the temblor that reduced everything to dust and rock. So now it has come to this. The girl has to go to the bathroom, so her father crawls out from underneath a mountain of covers and takes her by the hand. Without plumbing, Latif and his family must relieve themselves outdoors. But the girl hesitates to venture out into a night where temperatures have dropped to near freezing.

"I know it's cold, my little one," Latif says in Punjabi as the two trudge across the damp ground, their breaths exhaled as a mist. His tone is soft, reassuring, the only warmth he can offer. "Let's go now," he says.

The first snows will soon be coming to the Himalayan mountains -- even at the lowest altitudes -- bringing months of brutal subzero temperatures. As autumn slips away, hundreds of thousands of survivors of the magnitude 7.6 earthquake that killed more than 87,000 people are living in makeshift shelters or under the open sky across about 15,000 devastated outpost villages in northern Pakistan and India.

Warily watching the calendar, government officials and international aid workers scramble to deliver blankets and desperately needed tents in this region where winter hits with the force of a sledgehammer. Already, World Health Organization officials estimate, half a dozen homeless quake victims in the high mountains have died from exposure as temperatures dip into the teens.

Relief agencies are beckoning the region's highland people to desert the ruins of their homes and move to tent communities in lower altitudes where the temperatures will be less harsh and assistance somewhat easier to come by.

In Latif's village of 14,000, the quake took a high toll: One in 10 died, including 150 students crushed when a handful of schoolhouses collapsed. Those who are left are terrified of reentering their homes for fear they will collapse in the ground's next upheaval. There have already been 1,000 aftershocks since the Oct. 8 temblor.

So far, half the survivors in the village have reluctantly left their cattle and crops behind and moved down the mountain. Each day, as the weather worsens, more follow. The night before, an elderly man in a tent up the hill died from the cold, residents say.

Latif, his wife and their children were lucky -- they all survived the quake. And the stubborn Latif has already made his decision about the coming winter: He is staying put.

"I'm not leaving this place," he says as his 5-year-old son, Awas, rips a piece of cardboard to feed a second campfire just outside the door of the hovel. "How long can I live down there in those tents -- one year, maybe two? Then I will only have to come back to the mountains and start again. So I will start rebuilding now."

Latif is a small man, just over 5 feet tall. His hard life has made him look 20 years older than his age, 35. He is the latest of several generations of his family to inhabit this tiny plot of land on a steep mountainside at an altitude of more than 7,000 feet.

He keeps two goats for milk and a single chicken for eggs. The three animals survived the quake. For years, like the other men in the loose collection of mountain homesteads that make up his village, Latif has hurried the two miles down the twisting rocky path each morning to the city of Bagh, where he has worked as a laborer for 100 rupees, or less than $2, a day. Now the town's merchant district is destroyed and there is no work. As his savings run lower, Latif may soon have to temporarily quit the village to find a job in Islamabad, leaving his family behind under the care of relatives.

Before Oct. 8, the old house where he lived with his extended family of 10 had stood for generations. Life was simple, but good. There was electricity for fans in the summer, a television to entertain the children and a radio that at night broadcast throaty arguments about Pakistani politics.

When the quake struck at 8:50 a.m., Latif was shouldering a load of groceries to deliver in the city. The ground shook so hard he fell over backward. He had left his wife and his children, ages 3 to 14, sleeping hours before.

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