As temperatures plummet in the foothills of the Himalayas, Dan McDougall reports on the misery of Pakistani Kashmir, where cold and disease are multiplying the woes of the disaster's survivors
Sunday December 4, 2005
Along the freezing roads of the Himalayan foothills, 8,000ft above sea level, haulage trucks heave their way around corners, their lights shining on flimsy canvas tents at every turn, illuminating the shadows inside of families around cooking pots, children stamping their feet in the cold, everyone who has one wrapped in a blanket.
Seven weeks after the earthquake on 8 October that devastated this remote region of Pakistan, thousands of victims have still not been reached by the relief effort. Of an estimated three million homeless, only 100,000 are in official government relief camps and, according to the latest United Nations estimates, 800,000 are still sleeping in the open.
On Friday, UN relief official Darren Boisvert warned that 90 per cent of the 420,000 tents handed out in Pakistani Kashmir were no good for winter use, though some people strengthened them with plastic sheets and blankets. His superior, Jan Vandemoortele, UN co-ordinator for Pakistan, went further and described the situation as critical. 'We are on a knife edge in Pakistani Kashmir,' he said, adding that nobody should be carried away by the figures of large donations to help the people of Pakistan. 'Exuberance about donations from the West is deadly. We need more money: we just don't have enough aid and shelter packs to hand out.'
At the end of a treacherous mountain pass, four hours' drive north of the destroyed town of Bagh, in the village of Sundan Gali, people are living out these dire warnings. More than 300 died here on 8 October, including 50 children whose school collapsed. Beyond the rubble-strewn settlement there are only mule trails winding down towards the militarised border that divides Pakistani and Indian-controlled Kashmir. Night temperatures here have reached minus 12 and the fight to survive in the snow has begun.
Smothered in her dead mother's winter chador, six-year-old Samala Jandali sits trembling in the freezing air. Her lips are blue. In a collection of bricks on the muddy floor that straddles the entrance to their canvas tent, her grandmother is burning a putrid mixture of sewage waste, plastic bottles and wood, the only fuel she can muster. Samala rubs the acrid black smoke from her eyes.
The collapsed remains of their home are behind them, covered in snow. The bodies of Samala's parents and two brothers are still in there, beneath the wooden beams and concrete roof that once sheltered a hard-working family. A fortnight ago some neighbours tried using borrowed car jacks to lift the heaviest supports to reach the corpses but gave up within an hour after the weight of one pillar snapped the light machinery in two.
At sunset Samala and her 65-year-old grandmother, Abalnour, huddle under donated blankets, relying on each other's body warmth. The chill jolts the body as you gasp for breath. In the past few nights, along with the early snows and freezing rain, the temperature has dipped to dangerous lows. The heavy shadows under Samala's eyes betray too many nights without sleep. Like most of the elderly survivors, Abalnour wheezes as she goes about her chores. She is already suffering from a respiratory illness, most likely bronchitis, which could lead to pneumonia. With the onset of winter, the World Health Organisation fears that bronchial infections and hypothermia will become commonplace, killing thousands. Last week pneumonia claimed its first six victims here, including a three-month-old baby.
In more built-up areas, water and sanitation systems have been shattered. Some four million people are defecating in the open, prompting warnings of disease as dark rumours of cholera and bubonic plague filter back from remote field hospitals.
'There is no question that many, many people will die here, and children are most vulnerable. We are struggling to cope in our own sleeping bags in these temperatures: it's a battle for survival for some of the aid workers,' says Dagmar Chocholaclova, a Czech doctor in Ratnoi, a village near Bagh. Her clinic has treated hundreds of cases of pneumonia and other acute respiratory infections like bronchitis. 'Last year the area was under 10ft of snow by late December. It can only get worse, it will get worse."
Dr Shazhad Iqbal is holding an X-ray up against the sunlight, examining the outline of a child's leg. It is broken in three places. Alongside him a queue of injured Kashmiris stretches in an untidy line straddling the picturesque plateau where he has set up his outdoor office. Old men lie in the queue on metal beds and rattan cots, surrounded by grumbling relatives who have carried them down the mountain for an official examination.
'It's a difficult process, but a necessary one,' explains Iqbal. 'We are offering the injured compensation but they have to prove their injuries, either under examination or by producing X-rays; many people are faking injuries, so our job is vital.'
Over his shoulder is the line: there are amputees, grandmothers with their heads swathed in crude bandages and dozens of children in plaster casts.
The process is simple enough, he tells me. 'If someone has suffered paralysis or amputation we give them 50,000 rupees (£500), for internal bleeding, fractures and finger amputations, we donate 25,000 rupees (£250), and finally for soft tissue injuries and laceration we offer 15,000 rupees (£150).'
Behind Iqbal is Major Nigel Cribb, the officer commanding the British 59 Commando Engineer Squadron, which has just arrived in Pakistan. He is with his reconnaissance team, deep in conversation. Their green berets stand out against the camouflage whites of the Pakistani army escorting them through the Bagh valley, where the engineers will be based until 18 January, the official pullout date for all non-Pakistani troops.
The presence of marine and army commandos in such a politically sensitive area of Pakistan has led to criticism from hardline Islamists who claim the presence of the British and US forces here represents nothing more than an extension of their activities in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Last week a number of high-profile Pakistani politicians accused President Pervez Musharraf of 'betraying national interest' by letting more foreign forces into the country. 'The presence of such a large number of Nato troops threatens our national security,' said Munawar Hussain, a deputy leader of the hardline Jamaat i-Islami party.
According to Cribb, his men's official role in Pakistan is simply to rebuild schools and patrol remote mountain areas to reach the quake survivors worst affected by the weather. The only weapons they carry are their commando daggers, used for little more than tearing the covers off field rations.
'Criticism of our presence here is not our problem: we are here to do a job.' says Cribb.
'I first came out here three weeks ago on a reconnaissance mission with the Department for International Development, who are funding our secondment here through Nato. In such a cold climate this role naturally fell to us. An integral part of 3 Commando Royal Marines training is Arctic survival.'
The response of groups like Jamaat i-Islami to the British military presence in the heart of Bagh province is of little surprise to many in the military, who know that more than xenophobia and anti-Americanism are at work. Militant groups operating in the area know they have gained immeasurable kudos for their response; it was their vast networks of disciplined cadres that quickly spread out across the devastation to provide food and shelter.
Dawa, which is linked to a militant Islamic organisation, has erected a cluster of tents to provide shelter, along with a mobile hospital. A few kilometres along the road north from Bagh town, where the British engineers are now based, the radical Islamic charity Jamaat-ud-dawa has a camp for about two dozen refugees.
US government officials in Islamabad maintain they want to see the Pakistani military take control of relief, squeezing out all the groups that promote radical brands of Islam. In the battle for hearts and minds, according to one US official in the Pakistani capital, a nation's stability is at stake. 'If militant organisations are seen to be delivering the goods, and the government isn't, it is going to be in trouble - it's not complicated,' he told me.
This belief is reflected in the large boxes of Stars and Stripes branded toys and scarves regularly delivered by US helicopters with aid packages.
Yet with the crisis entering its deadliest phase since the earthquake struck, the Pakistani government is still not able to be choosy about who offers relief assistance.
The militants embedded in the mountains here had a big head start over other relief efforts, deepening the concern that Islamic groups will funnel new followers won by relief efforts into militant activities.
It is perhaps no surprise that it is Nato spearheading the construction of secondary schools amid fears that teenage boys are most at risk from fundamentalists looking to attract recruits.
Jamaat-ud-dawa, for example, has taken to posting huge banners in towns and villages here, advertising the group's successes at the height of the relief operation.
As a result of the under-lying tensions, the com-mandos are playing down their tough reputation: 'We have been discouraged from mentioning our role as commandos so the Pakistani army don't get the jitters about our role here, and we will continue to take that stance, but the men are proud of their presence and the commando dagger patches on their uniforms, so that will be difficult,' said one officer. 'We need to toe a very thin line.'
British marine and army commandos deserve their tough reputation and are trained in extreme survival techniques, spending months above the Arctic Circle. The men here expect to be working in temperatures of minus 20 by the end of the month.
Some are frustrated by the Pakistani-imposed cut-off point for all foreign troops. 'They want us out in six weeks but our reconnaissance missions show there is a great deal of work to be done... The question is, should we leave when the job is only half done?'
With the arrival of the snows in the upper Bagh valley, non-government agencies like the UK-funded Kashmiri International Relief Fund (KIRF) are now beckoning the region's people to desert their ruined homes and move to tent communities at lower altitudes, where the temperatures will be less harsh and assistance easier to come by. But, according to KIRF, most families remain reluctant to leave their home ground because they fear they will lose their land.
'I'm not leaving this place,' says Azaz, camped outside his destroyed home in Sundan Gali. 'How long can I live down there in those tents - one year, maybe two? Then I will only have to come back and start again.'
From the cargo hold of a Pakistani army helicopter, high above Bagh, one can see the valley floors littered with debris from vast landslides, and the collapsed roofs of hundreds of homes, many with bodies still buried inside.
Here and there, beneath the snowline, painted white stones spell out 'H's, where villagers improvised helipads. The helicopters never came. As they always suspected, they will have to rely on their own wits to survive.