With Quake Aid Scarce, Survivors Left Out in Cold
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
RAWALAKOT, Pakistan, Oct. 11 -- In a cold and driving rain, a dozen young men stood by the side of the road Tuesday afternoon, flagging down any vehicle that passed. A truck pulled over and they ran to the driver's window, pleading in vain for tents and blankets to shelter their families.
"My house has collapsed," said Wagar Ahmed, 21, waiting along the road for the second day after walking an hour and a half from his remote mountain village. "We have all grouped together to ask for help."
The moment illustrated the growing desperation of survivors of the massive earthquake on Saturday that killed an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 people across Pakistan-controlled Kashmir and adjacent areas. One million people were thought to be left homeless.
With worsening weather and rising fears of hunger and disease, people in many stricken areas had yet to see evidence of a government and international relief effort that was attempting to rush in food, shelter and rescue equipment. Countless mud-brick villages -- many of them virtually destroyed -- cling to the sides of Kashmir's forested mountains and are difficult to access in the best of times. The quake was centered in Pakistan, but struck a wide swath of territory in South Asia, affecting parts of India and adjacent areas of Afghanistan.
The devastation was evident during a four-hour drive through part of Kashmir. Families huddled in ruins or stood in the soaking rain as lightning crackled over nearby mountaintops. No international aid vehicles, and only a handful of army trucks, were visible along the route of roughly 50 miles, made nearly impassable in places by rockslides.
The scene was similar in Rawalakot, a once-pleasant town of about 60,000 people that is one of the largest in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. "We are badly surprised that we didn't see any Red Cross, any donor agency," said Abid Hussain, a businessman and former chairman of the local development authority. "We didn't receive a single injection" of medicine.
Although there is an army garrison nearby, troops were busy tending to their own dead and injured, and only a few soldiers were visible in the main part of town on Tuesday. The earthquake killed an estimated 600 people in Rawalakot and destroyed a college as well as both the military and civilian hospitals in town. In the absence of other assistance, Hussain directed rescue operations on his own, renting two backhoes from a contractor to clear rubble and turning over his wedding hall for use as a medical clinic.
The wedding hall was formerly attached to his four-story hotel, now in ruins with several bodies believed to be inside. Hundreds of homes in the town were destroyed and survivors were camping outside. "We are badly in need of tents," said Hussain, a sturdy-looking man with a commanding presence. "Ninety percent of our population is beneath the blue sky."
The weather worsened over Pakistani-controlled Kashmir and adjacent damaged areas to the west, grounding helicopters and slowing efforts to deliver relief supplies and evacuate the injured. Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao, meanwhile, raised the estimated death toll in Pakistan to at least 33,000; another 2,000 are reported to have died in the part of Kashmir controlled by India, just across the cease-fire line that divides Pakistani and Indian forces in the disputed Himalayan region.
In response to the 7.6-magnitude earthquake, the strongest to hit Pakistan in a century, the United Nations and numerous foreign governments have pledged assistance, and experts from international relief groups were busy assessing where and how to distribute the aid.
U.N. agencies estimated that a million people were in need of food and housing; officials at the World Food Program said the first shipment of food -- enough to feed 240,000 for five days -- was en route from Italy and could arrive by Wednesday.
"This food is needed urgently," Amjad Jamal, a World Food Program spokesman, told the Reuters news agency. "People are trying to recover from a major disaster; they are in shock and their bodily resistance will go down if they do not have enough food."