Feudal ties hamper quake relief

Some villagers in Pakistan's Allai valley don't feel free to leave the remote area, despite the onset of winter.

Sheets of plastic are selling out fast in the mountain hamlet of Thakot. It's a sign of desperation in this remote valley where area villagers - who have still received little or no aid, particularly tents - say they will resort to using the plastic tarps as shelter against the coming Himalayan winter.

Relief authorities pinpoint the Allai valley as the greatest challenge now facing earthquake relief efforts in northern Pakistan. Winter threatens to be particularly harsh in the high peaks here, they warn, but many villagers refuse to leave because of attachments to the land, including the vestiges of an age-old feudal system. Making matters worse, Allai has remained underaided until now, overlooked in the rush by the international community to channel relief to big cities like Balakot and Muzaffarad.

"Allai valley was forgotten in the beginning," says Hans Christian Poulsen, the Humanitarian Affairs Officer of the United Nation's Emergency Services Branch in Battagram. "We're trying to let the international community know that Allai really is going to be our greatest challenge."

It is a formidable challenge at best, with more than 165,000 survivors now homeless and in need of shelter. To minimize loss of life, more winterized tents, blankets, and other cold-weather materials need to flow into Allai and more villagers need move out to lower areas, relief workers say. But convincing more residents to leave may require a deft intervention by the Army in feudal relationships here.

Paulsen says that some 500 villagers per day are coming down from Allai. While that's a "significant trickle," he cautions that tens of thousands will remain in the mountains when the winter comes.

Army officials say some Allai residents are reluctant to abandon their cattle, often their only asset. Others are waiting to harvest their crops.

But some observers also fear that a clash is emerging between landlords, who feel their power threatened by the potential exodus from the mountains, and Army personnel trying to persuade villagers to abandon the land.

Local politicians say the feudal system, although absent in much of Pakistan, is still strong in the Allai valley, where five or six landlords hold sway. "Most of the people there are their tenants, their servants," says Zargul Youfufzai, a member of the Provincial Assembly of the North-West Frontier Province.

Mr. Youfufzai and others say the Army has not been able to convince the landlords to loosen their grip on the people. "The Army wants the people to leave the land, but the landlords are resisting," Youfufazi says. He adds that the Army should step up its efforts to convince the landlords, as well as the villagers themselves, that migration to lower areas is the best solution.

One landlord, Prince Muhammed Nawaz Khan Allai of Biari, says he would prefer his villagers to stay, but will not compel them. "Definitely [the prince] encourages the people to stay. This is their homeland, and they don't want to leave it," the prince said through a spokesperson.

Army officials in the valley deny such clashes. "Landlords aren't making that much trouble, actually," says Brig. Khalid Mahmood Ahmed.

But some villagers from the valley say the feudal system presents a major obstacle. "[The landlords] are offering shelter to people to stay, and land for cultivation, and we feel we cannot say no," says Saeed Ullah, a resident of Manda. "After the earthquake, we have to work for the landlords again."

Relief workers are racing against time to build temporary shelters for those reluctant to leave their land. But the logistics of getting materials to them, with snow expected in just two weeks, means that many will not have shelter in time. Poulsen says he is confident that villagers without shelter will eventually make their own choice to come down, knowing as they do the harsh conditions in the mountains.

Because Allai was forgotten in the beginning, survivors here remain among the least prepared for the winter. Many have not received tents, and of those who have, half have received summer tents unsuitable for the winter. "Less than 1 in 10 has received a blanket," Poulsen says, adding that the international community has miscalculated the picture of disaster, leaving out places like Allai because the destruction is less dramatic than in concentrated cities.

Relief authorities put particular emphasis on blankets, quilts, and children's clothes. "People have been so focused on tents, but now we need to think about what to put in the tents so that families can sustain themselves through the winter," Poulsen says.

Army officials say systematic relief efforts are working but will take time. "We are giving things with uniformity to each and every village. But it's a mega task requiring a megaresponse," said one Army official in Thakot, requesting not to be named.

Surveying the situation from his tent in Battagram, Poulsen is worried about how people will survive. "Out of 165,000, around 80 percent are vulnerable - women, children, the elderly, the physically impaired. Half of them are living above the snow line," he says. "We need the world to know that the resources need to come here."

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