South Asia earthquake: You can make a difference

It is six weeks since an earthquake struck South Asia. Julia Stuart visited devastated villagers in the Allai valley, Pakistan, who have lost everything. They need urgent practical help to survive the cruel winter, for their grim alternative is to become refugees
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The Independent Online

Waries Khan sits astride his wife's grave on the side of a mountain, banging grass sods on to it with a stone. The young man hopes they will protect the raised earth from being washed away when it rains. He has already done the same to his aunt's grave behind him. When he has finished with his wife's, he will move on to those of two children in front of him, which belong to his cousins.

Below him are the chaotic remains of Biyari, a remote farming community in Pakistan's North Western Frontier Province. The homes of 750 villagers, 54 of whom died in the earthquake, look as though someone has picked them up and smashed them to the ground. Several times a day, aftershocks vibrate the torn earth like the violent passage of an underground train.

Waries, a welder, was at work in his home village of Bafa, near Mansehra, when the earthquake struck at 8.45am on 8 October. The 21-year-old immediately returned to Biyari to check on his 18-year-old wife, Irshad, who was visiting her parents. It took him a day on foot. Nothing could have prepared him for the sight: a village reduced to a pile of rubble. His wife of a month was dead and she had already been buried.

Seven weeks after the disaster, Waries still spends most of the day by her grave, tending hers and the three others. "I feel lonely and depressed," he says, still in shock. "We only spent one week of marriage together. We'd planned for a whole life together. I don't know what to do."

Barefoot and wearing a thin cotton shalwar kameez, Waries is living in one of the relief tents that have been erected by the remains of the village. Already the temperatures plunge below zero at night. Within weeks, the tents will under six feet of snow.

Set in the Allai valley, Biyari is 5,400 feet above sea level and an eight-hour drive from Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. After turning off the Silk Route that leads to China, the last three hours are a tortuous ascent along rocky mountain cliffs, where landslides have been frequent since the earthquake. Within 15 days snow will block the road.

The earthquake has destroyed about 95 per cent of the homes in the valley. Most of the 100,000 people in the area who are still alive are subsistence farmers, producing rice, corn and maize. Usually by this time of year they would have put aside much of the food they need to see them through the winter. But the chaos following the earthquake has delayed everything by a month. It is only now that the cattle are walking in circles on top of the harvested rice to separate the grains from the straw. What supplies the farmers gathered earlier lie under the rubble, along with some of their animals. Deep cracks have appeared in the land and landslides have shifted springs used for irrigation.

A half-hour walk across rough paddy fields, bordered by snowy peaks, lies the village of Pokhal. As in Biyari, the earthquake destroyed all 80-odd homes within minutes. With no roofs left, the villagers dry their rice in the fierce morning sun on plastic sheets stretched over the local graveyard. There was only one death here, though many were injured. But like their neighbours, they have lost virtually everything. The most fortunate have salvaged the odd cooking pan or bed. Everything else, including clothes, furniture, food and savings, lies crushed under rubble.

Shirin Khan, 41, a horticulturist, stands in the remains of his bedroom. Only three walls remain, and built-in wardrobes. "I was in bed when it struck," said the father of four children, aged three to nine.

"We saw the walls collapsing and I grabbed my wife and children and rushed out. There were three heavy jerks in five minutes and the village was destroyed. The land was shaking for a long time. Most people thought it was the end of the world and hell was coming down." Mr Khan adds: "For 15 days there was no information about this area because the roads had collapsed. People slept in the open air or under plastic sheets."

All the survivors are living in relief tents. "We are very worried about what will happen when it snows. People will die without food and medicine, especially the children. We've lost half of the rice crop and now is the time to sow wheat but we haven't got seeds, or money for fertiliser. But the main problem right now is the tents." They do not want to leave the village. "Our forefathers have lived here," Mr Khan says. "This is our culture. We would be considered refugees if we moved and be in competition for food, firewood, animals, water and grazing land."

For the last few weeks, ActionAid, which discourages farming communities moving away from their livelihoods, has had a base in Pokhal. It has issued ration cards to families and old men with hennaed beards can be seen disappearing up the slopes with aid on their backs.

The family kits that ActionAid gives out contain 21 items, including dry food, gloves, shawls, soap, blankets, socks, cooking oil, milk, a lantern and rolls of cotton for menstruating women. The charity will distribute 1,200 insulated corrugated-iron shelters in the valley. Sleeping up to 15, they are the families' best hope for survival. But thousands more shelters are needed. The local people will be shown how to erect them and they will be able to reuse the materials when they reconstruct permanent homes next spring.

Back in Biyari, Waries has finished the turf on his wife's grave and has moved on to his young cousins'. At least he has their bodies. There is still one missing person in the village, three-year-old Ibrahim Husain, whose mother also died. His uncle, Umar Farooq, 40, a teacher who lost 17 relatives, stands among the rubble looking for signs of his resting place. "We're traumatised at not being able to find him," he says. "Every day we come to look and whenever someone points out a bad smell we start digging."

With the snow about to fall, it may well be spring before anyone finds the little boy's body. By then, there could be thousands more bodies in the Allai valley to bury.


ActionAid pledges to make most of the funds that readers raise available to the field within days. Even a small gift can make the difference between quake victims surviving or perishing this winter, as this price list of life-saving items shows.

* Materials and tools to build one corrugated iron shelter - £270
* Basic dry food for the winter for one family - £90
* Hire of lorry and driver to transport materials for corrugated iron shelters to affected areas from Islamabad - £80
* Heavy duty winter blanket - £21
* Stove - £5
Pit latrine - £5
* Roll of cotton for sanitary protection - 35p

* Click HERE to donate.

* Click HERE for full appeal links.