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Quake Survivors Cling to What Little Is Left

Many Pakistanis stuck in remote villages reject the government's call to move to lower-lying camps with better aid.

October 28, 2005|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

BHELA BAT GUL, Pakistan — Before the earthquake, Mumtaz Khan's most prized possessions were a refrigerator and a beautifully carved double bed, both now buried under the rubble of his home.

The most valuable assets he has left are a water buffalo and three goats. Khan is willing to risk his life to keep them.

During a visit by helicopter to these remote mountains in North-West Frontier Province this week, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz urged survivors of the Oct. 8 quake to abandon their ruined homes and take shelter in warmer valleys, where it is easier to distribute aid.

But Khan, like tens of thousands of survivors in mountain villages across northern Pakistan's quake zone, prefers to stay on his land, with the few belongings he has managed to salvage.

Khan is afraid that if he moves to a camp for displaced people, he won't have room for his buffalo and goats. They are worth about $1,000, five times his family's annual income -- when it had one.

The quake injured four members of Khan's family, including his adult son, Fazlur Rehman, who in normal times is the breadwinner. The son, whose broken right leg bears stitches, spends his days lying on a wood-frame bed, fighting the pain.

The elder Khan suffered a broken ankle and dislocated shoulder and lost two toes in the quake. He's received first aid for the injuries, but no help from the government or army.

"I need help here, not down in the valley," Khan said, leaning on a stick to keep his balance on the edge of a steep cliff. "I just need a good tent and I can easily survive here. There's no place to keep my belongings down there. If I go down there, I'll only have more trouble."

There have been more than 54,000 confirmed deaths from the magnitude 7.6 temblor, but local government estimates in Pakistan say the toll of fatalities is close to 80,000. About 78,000 people were injured, and up to 3.3 million are homeless.

The United Nations has warned that thousands of people could die from exposure or cold-related illnesses unless they get at least temporary shelter sturdy enough to withstand the harsh Himalayan winter.

Pakistan's military estimates that about a third of the homeless live in remote mountain areas where winter weather will be severe.

Khan and his 13 relatives are living in flimsy tents pitched amid the stubble of what was their small, terraced cornfield, overlooking the spectacular Alai Valley. Relatives in the city of Peshawar, the provincial capital, bought the tents and delivered them to this village on a dirt track about 80 miles north of Islamabad, Pakistan's capital.

The strongest shelter, a summer tent made of green canvas, is a stark reminder to Khan of what might happen if he takes up the government's offer and relocates to a camp. The tent was originally donated by Saudi Arabia and intended for refugees who fled Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979. Several million Afghans stayed in Pakistan amid decades of violence, until the Taliban regime in their homeland was toppled in 2001. Some still haven't gone home.

Khan and other proud ethnic Pushtun survivors on these mountainsides don't want to become refugees in their own land.

"Right now I only need a tent," he repeated. "My God will give me the bread and butter."

The government is trying to set up tent cities for survivors near towns and cities at a lower elevation. Those sites will be easier to reach by road when the brutal winter sets in. The plans include temporary clinics and schools.

However, Pakistan, the United Nations and relief agencies are having difficulty getting foreign governments to quickly deliver the shelters. Officials estimate that Pakistan is 150,000 tents short of the 450,000 it needs.

At an emergency aid conference Wednesday in Geneva, donor countries promised $580 million for quake victims. But only $15.8 million of that is for immediate delivery, about 20% of what the U.N. says it needs to avert a catastrophe this winter.

Snow is already falling on mountain peaks, and at night temperatures drop far below freezing in villages such as Bhela Bat Gul.

Foreign relief workers were frustrated Thursday with what they see as a weak response to Pakistan's emergency, which they say requires a relief effort that is more complex than that after the Asian tsunami disaster in December.

"We are still of the view that the international community lacks full comprehension of the catastrophe that is looming large," Rashid Khalikov, the U.N.'s chief aid coordinator, told reporters in the devastated city of Muzaffarabad, capital of the Pakistani-held portion of Kashmir.

As survivors struggle to find warm shelter, prices for essential goods are rising fast. Many people are going into debt just trying to feed themselves, as is the case with Khan.

Outside Muzaffarabad, in the Jhelum Valley, villagers say the price of rice has more than tripled since the quake.

More than 40 miles to the northwest, in Bhela Bat Gul, Baseerul Haq said he was running a tab with a local trader to feed his family and wouldn't know the cost until it was time to pay.

He can't even imagine when that day will come. For the last seven months, Haq, 25, had been making about $120 a month moving goods and people on the mountain roads in his 1978 pickup, before it was crushed in a rockslide. Haq still owes $1,700 on the truck, and his debts are mounting as he struggles to keep his wife and their three small daughters from starving.

They made their tent themselves, with dried cornstalks and old plastic sacks that can't stop the freezing wind. The children are coughing, and colder weather is just a few weeks away.

So Haq tried to rig up some insulation: a thin layer of foil packaging taken from Mexican-style snacks from Germany.

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