Quake refugees eye return home

Some Pakistani survivors are insisting on returning to remote mountain villages to tough out the winter.

Not even the harsh Himalayan winter can keep Abdul Jafoor from his remote village home of Shari. Mr. Jafoor, who came to seek aid in nearby Balakot, a hub of earthquake relief in northwestern Pakistan, insists on returning to the ruined hills of his childhood rather than settling in the many tent villages that dot this devastated city, some 60 miles north of the capital, Islamabad.

"In our routine life, we used to come to the land when the winter started, to collect and store food for two months before returning," he says, awaiting food outside a relief camp. Wintering in the mountains is a tradition his 12-member family intends to keep, despite warnings that this year's cold will be more severe than usual.

Nearly a month after the quake that killed some 80,000 people in Pakistan, perhaps as many as 7,000 in Balakot alone, officials are finding it difficult to persuade many survivors to remain in low areas, where the winter is expected to be more tolerable. Emotional attachments to the land, they say, as well as concerns for property and livestock, will compel many to winter in remote villages, despite the prospect of being virtually entombed by heavy snow and harsh weather.

"We're trying to get people to come down. But some people are reluctant to come. We cannot force them," says an Army official in Balakot, who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak with the media.

Such logistical challenges underscore the winter of doubt now hanging over Balakot, a northwestern town of some 250,000, even as it begins to take on a semblance of normal life once again.

Friday marked the Eid ul Fitr, the end of Ramadan, and the end of nearly a month of relief operations. The normally festive holiday was observed with tears and somberness, and some signs of healing as well, with small shops now reopened, and barbers setting up makeshift salons on top of roadside rubble. Survivors have settled into tent villages to convalesce, and hospitals report decreasing numbers of patients. Children, meanwhile, have begun attending makeshift schools, huddling in tent villages.

But deep uncertainties also hang over the future of Balakot, with officials divided as to whether the city should be rebuilt here or its population moved.

"The city must be shifted, permanently shifted," said Aurang Zeb, a member of the Provincial Assembly of the North Western Frontier Province, where Balakot is located. "The earthquake has destroyed the whole valley. It's safer for the time being to move."

Others disagree, however, urging that the town be reconstructed on its present site.

"My wish is that it should be rebuilt where it was," says Nasreen Khattak, also a member of the Provincial Assembly of the North Western Frontier Province. She admits, however, that safety concerns may preclude such reconstruction, given that the area lies in a seismic zone.

As many as 1,000 people continue to come down to Balakot every day from remote areas, according to Army officials. The most pressing uncertainty remains how best to prepare them for the winter. But that is proving a difficult task because the population itself is divided over where to go.

Many say they will stay in tent villages provided by the government and international relief organizations. Army officials welcome the move, saying they are prepared to house those who remain. "We have enough tents, although the need is increasing. But those who come down will be accommodated," says another Army official who asked not to be named. The Army is running about 20 tent villages so far, he says, adding that people will continue to be settled in and around Balakot.

But many survivors, like Wajed Ullah from the remote village of Shangla, insist they must return home. He says they will go back to their village when his elderly father is discharged from the hospital, although no home awaits them. Instead, they have only a plastic sheet that they borrowed on credit from a shopkeeper and which they plan to use to build a shelter. "I'm compelled to go back," Mr. Ullah says. "We have no option. Everything bad comes from God."

Attitudes like this worry Shahwali Khan, the Relief Commissioner of Balakot. "The people on the hilltops, it will be very difficult for them to spend even a few days. But they are emotionally attached to their land," he says, adding that the survivors will be better off where the winter will be more tolerable.

But others point out that mountain villagers, fortified by a lifetime of harsh winters, will find the means to persevere. "I don't think they're endangering themselves [by returning to their villages for winter]," says Tanveer Afzel, who runs a medical relief camp in Abbottabad. "They don't leave their land. They're hard people."

Mr. Afzel and others say that villagers can build mud houses to brave the winter, or reinforce tents with mud walls.

The government is now adapting its relief efforts to address this reality. Army officials say they will help rebuild the homes of villagers in remote areas, and Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, who visited Balakot on Saturday, said the government will provide 25,000 rupees, about $400, to each family choosing to remain in their villages for the winter.

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