As winter approaches in hilly northern Pakistan, where tens of thousands of earthquake victims remain without solid shelter, a number of Pakistani Americans are urgently trying to raise funds to airlift aid that would take six weeks to reach the country by sea. They have also warned that militant Islamic groups are already on the scene, helping survivors and winning hearts and minds.

"The liberal secular parties are still thinking about what to do, and these people are already taking advantage of the situation on the ground," said Nuzhat Ahmad, who is from Philadelphia and active in South Asia Quake, a group pooling relief and school kits for stricken areas. Ahmad was born in Mansehra, a town that was devastated by the quake.

She and others said Jamaat-e-Islami, the country's best-organized Islamic political party, has already set up tent schools through its service agency, Khidmat. The party, which has deep roots in Pakistani Kashmir, leads a religious coalition in Pakistan's parliament.

Jafar Safdar, 41, a computer engineer from Fremont, Calif., traveled to Pakistan in October and worked with friends to construct a mobile surgical unit in a shipping container. He described maneuvering their convoy around mudslides and through a collapsed tunnel to reach Muzaffarabad, the main city in Pakistani Kashmir. Until they could set up the surgery unit, patients underwent operations without anesthesia.

"I could hear the screams. It was awful," Safdar said from his home Tuesday. He said his team also helped install 150 tents for families whose homes had collapsed. "Wherever I went," he said, "there were orphaned children wandering around."

Syed Asif Alam, president of the Association of Pakistani Professionals, said he had spoken with volunteers who described hiking for hours to reach villages in hilly areas. One of the volunteers was Fakhr-e-Alam, a popular Pakistani singer, who took a 15-man crew to the quake zone in October. Syed Asif Alam said the singer told him that the steep terrain was littered with bodies and that there were not enough stretchers to bring down all the injured people.

"Tortured choices had to be made. It was so difficult to leave people behind who were still alive," Alam said from New York. But, like Ahmad, he said Islamic relief groups had better access to familiar terrain. "Their teachings and thought processes all lead to extremism," he said. "The humane factor is very critical, but so is the political one. If we don't go out there, someone else will."

Safdar said he saw U.S. choppers bearing the insignia of the American flag. "Simple people there really noticed. I heard them say: 'They are coming to help us.' "

'Realism May Dawn'

Karan Singh, 74, is the son of the last maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir, a former princely state in India. After India was partitioned to create Pakistan in 1947 and the Himalayan state was divided between the two countries, he became head of state of the Indian portion at age 18. Today, he still worries about Kashmir, which he describes as a rare jewel nestled in the great mountain range.

In a recent lecture at the University of Maryland, sponsored by the Bahai Chair for World Peace, Singh said the October earthquake, in which "so many precious lives have been lost in North India and in Pakistan, in a way has shown that our countries are linked indissolubly by geography, by history, by culture."

Although India and Pakistan have been at loggerheads over control of Kashmir for half a century, Singh said it was "not necessary to be locked in attitudes of permanent enmity and hatred."

In an interview in Washington and in further phone conversations, Singh talked about his exotic childhood as one of India's last princes. In 1931, when he was born in a hotel in Cannes, along France's Cote d'Azur, the people of Jammu and Kashmir were still one, Hindu and Muslim alike, and he was the heir apparent.

In 1947, Singh was spending a year in New York City, being treated for a hip injury at the Hospital for Special Surgery. He read, went to the theater and played chess. He attended President Harry S. Truman's inauguration and visited Niagara Falls.

Shortly after that, however, he was named regent of Jammu and Kashmir, replacing his father at the request of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. In title, he became commander in chief of Kashmir's state forces and chancellor of Kashmir University -- in which he subsequently enrolled at the age of 18.

In the preface to his recently revised memoirs, Singh wrote, "I still have some karmic debt to pay to this beautiful state founded by my ancestors and, in the process, perhaps to help in stabilizing relations between India and Pakistan for the greater welfare of the one billion people who inhabit these two countries."

This week, speaking from New Delhi, he said he hoped the suffering experienced by both India and Pakistan in the earthquake might help improve their relations. In the long run, he said he was "mildly, not wildly optimistic" that the historic tensions could be resolved. "You never know, realism may dawn."

Karan Singh, 74, calls Kashmir a rare jewel.