Quake relief fights tough terrain

The Asian temblor is being described as the worst disaster in Pakistan's history.

Relief workers and military officials on both sides of the border in the Himalayan region of Kashmir struggled to reach hundreds of villages cut off by the worst earthquake to hit this region in a century. Estimates of the death toll ranged Monday between 20,000 and 30,000. Relief agencies have put out a massive appeal for food, tents, and medicines for an estimated 2.5 million people who are thought to be homeless - a number similar in scope to the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Just as Americans voiced anger at the slow response of emergency relief agencies in the wake of hurricane Katrina, many Kashmiris in both the Indian and Pakistani portions of the divided territory decried what they called a slow emergency response.

Pakistani officials urged patience. "We are handling the worst disaster in Pakistan's history," said the chief Army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan.

The earthquake of Oct. 8 could be a crucial test of both the military-dominated government of President Pervez Musharraf, as well as renewed peace efforts between India and Pakistan, who both claim the quake-ravaged state of Kashmir. President Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, has built his reputation as a man of competence, mobilizing resources of a well-trained military apparatus without debate; making fast decisions under conditions of stress. Now he faces a crisis of major proportions at a time when his leadership is coming under growing pressure from both Islamists and democracy advocates.

At his office in the mountainous city of Murree, coordinating relief efforts in the worst-affected areas of Kashmir, Brig. Iftikhar Ali Khan has spent the better part of the past two days taking calls on four separate phones on his desk, often with a phone pressed to each ear.

He says he understands public frustration at the Army's inability to move faster, but he adds, "you have to understand that we have never seen such a thing before. Most of the soldiers in my area were deployed on the front lines."

"We needed additional forces and they had to come by helicopters, not C-130s," said Brigadier Khan, commander of a 6,500-square-mile sector of Pakistani Kashmir, including Muzaffarabad.

Khan estimates that between 60 percent and 70 percent of Pakistani Kashmir has been "destroyed." In Muzaffarabad itself, "all medical facilities have been razed to the ground," Khan says.

Capt. Farooq, an Army surgeon recently returned from mobile hospitals in Muzaffarabad, confirms that all local hospitals have been destroyed. There is a crucial need for medicines, especially antibiotics, he says. "There is not one hospital left," says Captain Farooq, who declined to give his first name. "We are operating in the fields, we are operating under tents. Every kind of trauma injury you can imagine is there."

Islamic parties send helpers

The Pakistani Army has begun moving heavy equipment up the Kashmir Highway, from Islamabad toward Muzaffarabad, but whole sections of the road have been rendered almost impassable by landslides. As of Monday afternoon, only light vehicles were getting through. Busloads of young men, including green-turbaned volunteers from Islamic parties, headed in. Busloads and trucks full of women, children, families, and injured people headed out.

The situation was similar up in the town of Balakot, in the rugged Northwest Frontier Province, a mountainous region long thought to be a possible hiding place of top Taliban leaders and even Osama Bin Laden. Landslides have taken out a section of the road some four miles from Balakot, and the only way to reach the city itself is on a rickety suspension bridge . On Sunday night, villagers could be seen bringing the injured across this bridge on traditional cots made of rope.

All along the mountainous valley, with its picturesque pine slopes and terraced farms, stonebuilt houses had collapsed. Survivors have built shelters out of corn stalks. Many of the dead have already been buried in makeshift graves. The injured lay out in the open on string cots, awaiting evacuation and medical care. But such care is sparse. Few humanitarian aid groups have reached this region.

Sign: 'We need help'

In a prosperous neighborhood in Muzaffarabad, Syed Manzoor Hussain's family holds a sign in English that reads, "We need help."

Their homes are destroyed, and four children in an extended family of about 150 members were killed when their neighborhood school collapsed Saturday morning.

"Early morning, all the children went to school," says Mr. Hussain. "And then, at 9 a.m., the earth moved." He pauses. "We just recovered the last child today."

Members of the Hussain family express anger that the government has not moved more quickly, even though the Pakistani Army has hundreds of thousands of troops along the border that divides Indian and Pakistani Kashmir.

"We have been here like this for three days," says Hussain, pointing to his family, living out in the garden of their home, cooking and sleeping in the open as night temperatures drop. Hussain's nephew, Ishtiya, is even more angry. "Nothing is coming fast enough," he says. "It is the young who need the help, because they were the ones who went to school."

Few of the survivors cry. Most have a stunned sense of resignation. And most continue to observe Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, which began on Oct. 4 this year. At sundown, they break their fast with the ritual of Iftar, sharing buckets of water and whatever food they can find, mostly husks of maize.

In Islamabad, President Musharraf appealed to the world for aid. His greatest need, the general said, was for helicopters. In Washington, President Bush promised to send eight choppers - a mix of large troop-carrying Chinooks and Blackhawks from neighboring Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai also pledged to send some helicopters, and donations began pouring in from many Muslim nations, especially the United Arab Emirates.

Some of the groups most active in the aid effort appear to be Islamic parties and Kashmiri separatist groups. Militant groups under the Pakistan-based umbrella group, the United Jihad Council, called for a cease-fire after the earthquake.

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a Kashmiri separatist leader from Srinagar, has organized a local collection drive for money and blankets for quake survivors. He calls on Pakistan and India to restore phone lines so that divided families on both sides of the border can contact each other. "Calamities don't recognize borders," says Mr. Farooq. "These are man-made borders."

An opening for peace?

Abdul Majid Mallick, president of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation League in Mirpur on the Pakistani side of Kashmir, says that this is a golden opportunity to cooperate. There are areas in Pakistani Kashmir that are blocked and can be easily accessed from the Indian side of Kashmir, he said. "If both India and Pakistan jointly hold rescue operations, so much more can be done to save lives in Azaad Kashmir," he said, using the Pakistani name for the province. Azaad means "free" in Urdu.

Pakistan Monday accepted an Indian offer of aid for earthquake-hit areas on the Pakistani side of Kashmir on a "very urgent basis." India will send a shipment of tents, food, medicine, and other aid. However, Pakistan also ruled out joint rescue operations. Pakistani's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Tasnim Aslam, said that "there is no population" right on the frontier that divides the territory between the two neighbors, "so ... there is no possibility of joint operations."

At the front-line checkpost between Indian and Pakistani Kashmir, close to the Indian city of Uri, Indian and Pakistani Army commanders have held two meetings on how to coordinate relief efforts between the two countries.

This in itself is significant, given that the two countries have fought two all-out wars, a major conflagration, and a 16-year-long insurgency with each other over the state of Kashmir. Yet the meetings thus far have been largely symbolic.

"There is not that intensive a cooperation on the ground," admits Sitanshu Kar, an Indian Defense Ministry spokesman. "It's a little early yet. There has to be a formal request from Pakistan, which has not come so far."

Anuj Chopra contributed from Bombay.

International aid to Pakistan

Afghanistan Pledged to send 51 doctors, five nurses, 3 tons of medicine

Britain Sent specialist rescue teams; $1.7 million pledged so far

China Sent rescue teams, medical workers, seismologists; pledged $6.2 million

India Sending tents, food, medicine

Kuwait Donated $100 million

Malaysia $1 million pledge; sent 46-member search and rescue team

Russia Sending 30 rescue workers, four rescue dogs, supplies

Saudi Arabia Sending supplies, medical teams

South Africa Sent 18 doctors, 10 paramedics, 30 tons of aid

Turkey Sent four military planes with doctors, rescue workers

United Arab Emirates Sent police rescue team

United States Pledged up to $50 million; dispatched eight military helicopters

Sources: AP, Reuters

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Quake relief fights tough terrain
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today