Earthquake victims in urgent need of shelter from snows

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The Independent Online

For earthquake survivors in the highlands of Kashmir, getting their homes rebuilt quickly is a matter of life and death. In just four weeks the snow will arrive, and in an average winter it lies six feet deep on the mountains. Anyone without a proper shelter will die. A tent will not be enough: they will be buried under the snowfall.

The village of Ali Sojal lies 6,000ft above sea level. Nearly all its houses were destroyed or made uninhabitable in the earthquake, and there are pitifully few tents. At night it is already bitterly cold. When it rains, it is ferociously heavy.

So the survivors of Ali Sojal are huddling together inside the houses that are still standing, even though many are severely damaged and in danger of collapsing. In one, where survivors are crammed in three to a rope-bed, a wall has collapsed, leaving the house open to the elements on one side. Great cracks run through the walls that remain.

The tiny house is divided in two, with women and children on one side, and men on the other. It is so crowded they are sleeping in shifts.

Nazir Suleiman was away at university when the earthquake struck and rushed back to help his family. Now he has a place in a shared bed in a house where 150 are sleeping. His shift is from midnight till 6am. Fit men get only six hours to sleep. Women, children and the elderly get more.

When it is not their turn to sleep, the villagers have to stay in the open. At night, they make fires to keep warm, and busy themselves with cooking or looking after the livestock.

There are not enough places inside for everyone. Mohammed Sadiq, his children and grandchildren are sleeping in the open next to the ruins of their home, trying to shelter against the wall when the rain comes.

These villages are remote places. The people claimed we were the first foreigners ever to come here. The Pakistani government does not usually allow foreigners into the part of Kashmir it controls.

The village school lies hundreds of feet above on the mountain ridge. The children used to walk up the steep mountainside without a path to get there, but the school was destroyed in the earthquake. The village hospital is gone too.

Little aid has reached here. The villagers saw one helicopter fly over, but it did not land. Some food has arrived, but few tents, and everyone is worried about the approaching winter.

"Please tell people, we do not need food," says Sardar Mohammed Anwar, a local political leader. "For the next few weeks, we need tents for the rain. And we need help to rebuild our houses. Please don't send us money. We are not beggars. We need bricks, we need cement."

The mountain villages are desperately poor communities, and most people built their houses with money made working in Pakistan's big cities, or abroad. Mazar Bashir had rushed back from Dubai, where he works as a carpenter, to help his relatives. "The people here cannot afford to build these houses again," he said. "They spent all their money on them."

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