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Done Everest. Next: earthquake relief

Mountaineers are helping to locate and bring aid to Pakistan's high-altitude earthquake survivors.

By Ramita NavaiContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / December 21, 2005



DULIARD, PAKISTAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR

With no road access and few spots for a helicopter to land easily, the Machiara Valley in northern Pakistan had yet to see any relief supplies for two months after the devastating earthquake.

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That changed when a team of mountaineers traversed remote valleys and climbed the steep flanks of the Himalayas to reach survivors here.

Jean-Philipe Bourgeouis and Claude-Andre Nadon lugged piles of tarpaulin sheets and blankets on their backs, up a rocky, steep track - without benefit of porters or mules. The pair of French-Canadians have worked as mountain guides, and between them have scaled Everest, K2, and Kilimanjaro.

Now they and 12 other mountaineers face a daunting challenge of a different sort. They have been sent by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to find unreached villages, assess their needs, and locate helicopter landing sites - and to do so as quickly as possible before winter descends.

"When you look around the valley all you see is people who haven't been reached. They're sleeping out in the cold. And it's cold, very cold," says Bourgeois. His comrade, Nadon, says, "We've been focusing on the most remote places because these are places that aid gets to last."

Getting supplies to survivors in the highest areas has proved one of the toughest challenges for relief groups. According to a new UN report, all survivors living above 5,000 feet have received shelter. The Army says it is building 6,000 temporary shelters a day and the report predicted the combined efforts of aid agencies, local authorities, and the military will have provided non-tent shelter for at least 595,000 people.

The focus of earthquake relief is now shifting to nearly 2 million people below the snow line, says UN chief coordinator Jan Vandermoortele. However, many aid workers say that thousands at high altitudes remain without adequate protection heading into the winter. Some NGOs and aid agencies are still sending aid workers up to high altitudes. The IOM has scouted out dozens of villages above 5,000 feet in the Muzaffarabad vicinity.

"People high up just don't have shelter. They're sleeping under the stars," says Maggie Tookey from the Britain-based charity Edinburgh Direct, who has been working in the village of Bheri in the north of Muzaffarabad district.

"If they do have shelter, it's some bits of wood and material strung together, it's just not adequate," she adds. "The big problem is reaching them."

It's difficult to move about even at the lower elevations. Just Tuesday, 20 people died when a bus skidded off a road 30 miles southeast of Muzaffarabad.

Many of the high-up villages are not accessible by road. Aid groups sometimes struggle without maps in this militarily sensitive region. And aerial reconnaissance cannot determine the number of survivors in devastated villages.

As soon as Bourgeouis and Nadon arrive in the Machiara valley, they pitch a tent and begin their assessment.

In the villages that dot the region, the devastation is complete. The tumbled wreckage of homes trickles down the side of mountains in a tangle of uprooted earth and crumbled debris. The green land is pockmarked by gaping black cavities, the sunken remains of the traditional timber homes where the huge mud roofs came crashing down, driving everything beneath them deep into the ground.

Survivors of the South Asia earthquake that killed some 80,000 people and left 3.5-million homeless have cobbled together a few makeshift shelters from bits of wood and old shawls.

One villager, Kasem Jan, sleeps on the frosty earth by the collapsed ruin that was once her home in the hamlet of Duliard, perched 7,500 feet high. At night she cradles her small children in her arms for warmth. They have lost much of their clothing in the quake, leaving them with little more than rags against the freezing nights.

"It's so cold at night. I'm scared my children won't survive," she says. Seven member of Kasem's family were killed by the quake and her child and brother are still buried under the rubble.

"I've tried to get them out, but it's too hard, I can't do it with my hands," she says, starting to cry.

Like most villagers, Kasem's cattle were killed and her farming land ruined. The quake also dried all the mountain springs and now the villagers must trek up a perilous track to another valley to fetch water, which they carry on metal urns balanced on their heads. The journey takes several hours.

Many survivors in the high valleys hit by the quake are worried they will lose their land or livestock if they go. Some don't have the money to make a journey. Others, says an IOM official, face pressure from feudal landlords to stay, or do not want to leave behind family graves.

The bitter winter is slowly starting to unfold, in an onslaught of snow and wind. The villagers monitor the encroaching snow that edges its way down from the white peaks with trepidation.

Pneumonia is slowly taking hold, according to Zulfkar Ali from the World Wildlife Fund, the first doctor to have arrived in Machiara, and he worries about the children. "This is a remote place and there's no doctor," he says.

Bourgeouis and Nadon meet with village elders who spread the word that help has finally arrived. Villagers queue patiently for the aid that could save their lives - a blanket and a sheet of tarpaulin.

The villagers do not want the climbers to leave and come with gifts of walnuts and eggs - all that they have. But there are too many other villagers in need of help. "We haven't even got to the valley on the other side of here," says Nadon, nodding towards the endless mountains that disappear into the distance. Now that the village has been scouted, other IOM workers, other aid groups, or the Pakistani military will bring larger relief shipments.

In a matter of weeks most of this region will cut off from the outside world by over six feet of snow. "What will happen to us then?" asks a village elder.

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