Another Pakistan winter without a roof

Despite a year of work and billions of dollars, some 1.8 million people may still be homeless in northern Pakistan.

A year has not made that much difference in the life of Shamsul Akbar. When last October's earthquake struck this remote Himalayan valley, his family migrated to a camp village in Battagram and fought the bitter winter inside a small donated tent. They have returned now to their village of Rashang in Allai Valley – but they are living in the same tent, and staring down winter once again. It is the kind of déjà vu that Mr. Akbar never imagined.

As the nation commemorates the first anniversary of its worst natural disaster, a mood of heightening concern hangs over northern Pakistan. More than 3 million people became homeless on the morning of October 8, 2005. The disaster killed more than 70,000 people and wiped a generation of children from the land and whole cities from the map.

"I'm worried. How can I live this winter?" Mr. Akbar asks, while standing in front of the same mountains that last year shook with such violent force. Villagers young and old lined up on Friday to receive a free donation: corrugated galvanized iron (CGI) sheets donated by Save the Children. The donation is part of a larger effort to provide building materials for about 1,100 families to use for temporary shelters. For Akbar and others, the CGI sheets are a kind of salvation – a slice of hope in desperate times. "If I receive these CGI sheets, then it is possible," he says.

Oxfam reported last week that 1.8 million people remain in temporary shelters and tents – a staggering but disputed figure. The deprivation persists despite donors' distribution of some $2.6 billion in grants and in-kind gifts.

Many Pakistanis had hoped for faster and more effective relief. Government officials, including President Pervez Musharraf, have rejected Oxfam's claims, but other anecdotal evidence gleaned throughout the area seem to bolster it. Field workers with international and local agencies describe continuing difficulties one year on.

"Ninety percent of people are still living in tents," in Neelum Valley, says Saima Ghazal, a surveyor with the International Organization on Migration (IOM) in Muzaffarabad.

But not everyone shares Akbar's concern, or his plight. Just up the road, Saifur Rahman, a schoolteacher, has already built a smart and solid home of cement, mud, and stone, with enough room for his family of 12. Thoughts of winter bother him little, and he is already planning to expand.

But Mr. Rahman's comforts represent an extreme, underscoring that home reconstruction has been otherwise rare in this landscape of ruin and doubt.

"There is a risk that we foresee this winter," says Shakeel Qadir Khan, the district commission officer of Mansehra. On Friday, the US Ambassador, who flew into Allai Valley to reiterate the US commitment to rebuilding, echoed that risk, highlighting the work still to be done.

The estimated reconstruction costs have forced a national debate over how much hope a year can bring. Intermingled with mourning, many survivors are questioning the pace of reconstruction; others bristle that so many months later, squalid conditions are still all they know.

Government officials now expect rebuilding to take 10 years and cost $4.3 billion. But some aid agencies and local officials caution against assigning blame. The scale of the tragedy – 12,000 square miles spread over remote corners of the country – coupled with inclement weather has created a challenge that even the world working together could not overcome in a year, they say.

Harsh rains and landslides during the monsoon season, which lasted nearly four months, wreaked havoc on progress, washing away homes and lives that were once on the path to recovery.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle was simply one of identification: for months, survey teams worked to determine which families required what form of compensation. Reconstruction could not begin until this process was complete. Many have criticized it as slow and corrupt, but officials say that, given the Herculean task at hand, the system has worked well. About 90 percent of survivors have been compensated, according to the government, in a cash flood amounting to about $1 billion.

"So far as the compensation is concerned, its execution on our part has been excellent. You cannot compensate millions in a day," says Masood-ur- Rehman, the assistant commissioner of Kashmir. Major deaths by disease and cold were averted, and thousands, having received their checks, are now ready to begin rebuilding.

Many international agencies have a mandate to remain for years to come. On Friday, Ryan C. Crocker, the US ambassador to Pakistan, told a crowd assembled high in the valleys of Rashang that US commitment to rebuilding has only just begun.

"We spent $200 million in the relief operations. We'll spend another $200 million in reconstruction," he said, flanked by US military Chinook helicopters, which this week began ferrying 20,000 CGI sheets to highly affected areas.

Moments before he spoke, residents could be seen walking up the mountainside with CGI sheets balanced on their heads. Surefooted, they headed in the direction of treacherous peaks, where new roofs glistened in the afternoon sun.

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