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'Only With a Tent Can We Survive Winter'

The Oct. 8 quake left millions of Pakistanis homeless, many in the Himalayas where they face death from exposure or pneumonia.

October 25, 2005|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

NURPURA, Pakistan — The earthquake left just enough splintered planks and snapped beams in the ruins of Mohammed Azeem Khan's house for him to cobble together a shack.

He and his wife scavenged a few corrugated metal sheets from the rubble of a nearby school to add a couple of walls and a roof. At night, freezing wind whistles through gaping holes between the timbers of the rickety hut, 3,200 feet up a mountainside.

This is where Khan and his family of six will try to survive waist-deep snow and biting cold in the bitter Himalayan winter. He doesn't like their chances.

"We're only covering our heads with this," he said. "We're just getting by. Only with a tent can we survive the winter."

The United Nations warns that thousands of quake victims could die of exposure and cold-related illnesses such as pneumonia unless tents designed to withstand heavy snow and wind arrive soon.

The Oct. 8 earthquake left up to 3.3 million Pakistanis homeless, most of them in the mountains of Kashmir and North-West Frontier Province, where tens of thousands of survivors can be reached only by helicopter.

Pakistan's government and relief agencies have distributed about 60,000 tents, most of them made of thin cotton or polyester, which are unlikely to keep people warm in the dead of winter.

Pakistan needs at least 200,000 more winter tents to shelter quake survivors, according to the International Organization for Migration, a Geneva-based agency aiding quake victims.

The shortage of winter tents is so severe that the British aid group Oxfam has called on military forces around the world to begin moving tents to Pakistan's quake zone.

"These tents are currently gathering dust waiting for an emergency," Nick Roseveare, Oxfam's humanitarian director, said in a statement. "While this might not be a military emergency, it is an emergency and those tents are needed to save lives."

The U.S., Canada and other countries have donated surplus winter tents, but so far governments appear unwilling to tap their main military stockpiles, Oxfam said.

"Of course we understand that the military like to be ready to rush into battle at a moment's notice, but thousands of people could die unless all of the world's winter tents are made available," Roseveare said.

As of Sunday, the U.S. military had donated 534 tents and had plans to give 4,000 more, said Air Force 1st Lt. Tawny Dotson of U.S. Central Command.

Dotson was not certain whether the tents were winterized, describing them as "like a building with pretty thick walls that are waterproof and can be sealed." They accommodate at least 10 people each, she added.

Dotson said she did not know how many tents the military had in reserve and would not say whether the U.S. was dipping into its emergency military reserve.

Anticipating that governments won't be able to deliver enough suitable tents in time, aid agencies are adding plastic tarps to ordinary tents and giving villagers tools to build temporary shelters, International Organization for Migration spokesman Chris Lom said.

Lom flew by Pakistani military helicopter Sunday to an isolated village near Batgram, northwest of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. His destination was at an elevation of more than 8,000 feet, and the temperature there has been dropping to 16 degrees.

"I was talking to a colonel and he said he needs 23,000 tents," Lom said. "And he's got 2,000. There were 1,000 people waiting there for tents, from all along the valley."

The 26-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization began airlifting supplies for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees last week, including 15,000 family tents and 2,000 stoves.

On Friday, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said that $620 million pledged by foreign governments for relief and reconstruction was "totally inadequate." The country will need $5 billion just to rebuild houses, he said.

The magnitude 7.6 quake killed an estimated 80,000 people and injured about 70,000 others. The injured continue to stream down from mountain villages searching for medical attention.

Several survivors hiking down to the Jhelum River valley Monday said few people in the high mountains were benefiting from airdropped relief supplies.

"Some people did get aid, but they didn't distribute it," said Umar Din, 40, leaning on his walking stick. "They hoarded it. They think it's their property. It's a mess everywhere. Whoever gets something just takes it away for himself. Might is right now."

Most people in Din's village are living on boiled corn stalks, he said. "They've become so weak, they can't walk in the mountains anymore," he said.

When 2-year-old Zakia Bibi's father carried her down the mountainside Monday, she had a deep gash several inches long on the side of her face. A falling rock had sliced into muscle and bone.

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