The next chapter of Abdul Qaduz's earthquake recovery began rather silently, without fuss or fanfare. Within moments his family pulled down their tent, where five had huddled at night for months, and promptly put it in the back of a truck, along with chairs and mattresses, cooking pots, and electrical wires. The aging father says he will repitch his tent on a patch of ground when he returns home. Only its outline remained pressed in the dirt, surrounded by cans of vegetable oil marked "USA" in large letters.
Thousands of families like those of Mr. Qaduz are expected to return to their native villages by Friday, inaugurating the next phase of the earthquake rehabilitation. Also heading home are US military personnel involved in helping those families get back on their feet. Friday marks the official end of the US humanitarian operation that began within 48 hours of the earthquake.
In the last six months, some 1,200 US military personnel and a fleet of 24 helicopters have delivered over 15,000 tons of humanitarian aid, in what has been called the largest disaster relief operation in US military history.
The "angels of mercy," as US helicopters have been called, have delivered not only aid but much needed goodwill in Pakistan, softening an otherwise rocky relationship with the United States. Polling in recent months has shown a marked improvement for the US image among the Pakistani public as a result of the American helping hand.
Mr. Qaduz and other survivors say the generosity from the US soldiers and relief workers will never be forgotten. "They have helped us a lot. It should be written in history," he says, his brothers nodding their heads in agreement.
But some analysts caution that the US must sustain its commitment to reconstruction if larger criticisms against its foreign policies are to be minimized.
"While on the one side, the relations between the US and Pakistan should improve, on the other hand much more has to be done to continue the goodwill built through earthquake relief," says Lt. Gen. Kamal Matinuddin (ret.), a political analyst in Islamabad. "Otherwise it will wither away."
The government's March 31 deadline is timed partly to the passing of winter into spring. As warming temperatures clear snow from the highland communities devastated by the October quake, thousands of tents that once crowded the lower hills and open plains have been rolled up. Hundreds of families are making the trek back home, some happy to be returning, others worried that they will not find the medical and relief services they have come to rely on for so many bitter months.
The US military presence helped make those services possible. At an official farewell ceremony Thursday at an airport outside Islamabad, there were words of thanks and bittersweet goodbyes from both sides.
"It is very hard to say goodbye to our friends in Pakistan," said a visibly moved Rear Adm. Michael LeFever, commander of the US Disaster Assistance Center in Pakistan. "But we are excited about the reconstruction and rehabilitation under way by the USAID and the Pakistani government."
Admiral LeFever and US Ambassador to Pakistan Ryan Crocker underscored the enduring US commitment to helping rebuild. "The effort goes forward. This is a transitional period, not a culmination period," Ambassador Crocker said, backdropped by a Chinook helicopter. "We are deeply involved with the Pakistani government."
The extent of that involvement includes more than $500 million for reconstruction, in addition to $1.5 billion in assistance for education, health-care, governance, and economic growth.
The need for such assistance is especially clear in the remains of relief camps, where doubt hangs heavily over those returning home. Qaduz, from the village of Nuri, is one of those reluctant to leave Balakot, his makeshift home now for several months. "Our property is destroyed, but we are compelled by the government to return to our village," he says. "We're not happy because there is no system there. There are no road links, no schools, no health facilities."
Intermingled with the hints of frustration and doubt, there is also an abiding sense of gratitude for the US help. Such was the opinion of Mustak Aman, busy taking down his own tent in Balakot. "We feel a lot of care for the Americans because they helped us more than the other countries," he says.
It is a newfound sense of understanding shared on both sides. US Marine Malcolm Chaney, from Atlanta, wasn't sure what to expect in Pakistan, but he says he'll leave with a better appreciation for its people. "One day we sat down with some Pakistan officials and their imam," he says. "We had a discussion about our religions, and the imam basically said what I was thinking - that basically we're all the same."
Some analysts say the earthquake helps to underscore how much more work needs to be done to mend relations. "[The rescue operation] has had a positive outcome, not only among the governments, but among the people. But there are other negative fallouts that clouded the impact of this relationship," says Lt. Gen. Talat Masood (ret.), referring to such incidents as the CIA missile strike in Bajaur Agency that killed 13 civilians.
Others agree, saying the quake relief cannot completely mitigate the anger many Pakistanis feel toward the US because of its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "That is a separate issue and people will continue to criticize America," says General Matinuddin. But he says that a deep and long-term US role in reconstruction is still critical. "It will minimize the feeling against America. At least the government will have a handle to tell the public, 'Look, America is doing this, this, and this.' "