Survivors of the Pakistani earthquake left to die of cold

Thousands have no shelter with the first snows of winter only days away
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The Independent Online

At least 500,000 earthquake survivors in Pakistan still have no shelter with the fierce Himalayan winter just days away, international relief agencies have warned. Aid workers are scrambling to get tents to survivors in high mountain areas where snow may arrive any day, but the international relief effort is failing.

The problem is a severe lack of funds. Relief agencies warn that if they do not get adequate shelters to survivors before snow falls, thousands will die.

A desperate plea made to The Independent on Sunday, from a village in the mountains above the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, illustrated the scale of the crisis.

"Please tell the British government to help us. Please tell anyone," Mohammed Idris said by telephone. "We have no tents and it is so cold at night. If we do not have tents soon the children will die."

Mr Idris said he was one of 4,000 villagers in Rajmerra with only 20 tents between them. On some nights, he added, temperatures already dip below freezing and water turns to ice. On other nights survivors are pelted with torrential rain, havenothing to sleep under and sit awake all night, shivering.

"We can see the snow on the hills and it will be here any day now," Mr Idris added. "I went to the Pakistan army today to ask for tents but they say they cannot help, as they don't have any. Please tell people we need tents, food and blankets." Rajmerra lies in Battamori district, near Battagaram. Time for them is running out fast.

Much the same situation can be seen throughout northern Pakistan. In the village of Maira, in the hills above Bagh, we found a two-month-old baby named Ariba, sleeping with her mother under a thin sheet of tarpaulin that did not even cover the rope-bed, which jutted out into the rain. At 4,500ft above sea level, temperatures plunge once darkness falls and the snow will be here soon, too.

"If it starts to snow we'll have to try to build a new house," Ariba's father, Abdul Rauf, said. But the family has no money and no building materials.

In the same village we found Mohammed Haleem salvaging wood from his ruined home to use as winter fuel, including beams, doors and even the roof thatch. He was dismembering the house to keep his family alive. "It burns my heart to do this but I have no choice," he said.

Of an estimated three million people made homeless by the earthquake, only 10,000 are in official relief camps. Most remain in their often remote mountain villages, where aid is still struggling to get through. The charity World Vision last week said around 250,000 survivors had received no aid at all.

Aid agencies say they are doing what they can but governments have not put up enough money. The United Nations has received only $133m (£76m) towards an emergency appeal for $550m. It urgently needs $42m just to keep the current aid effort going.

Pakistan says that out of the $2bn pledged by foreign governments, it has received only $9.5m. The charity Oxfam says Britain has contributed only 24 per cent of what it says would be its "fair share", based on the size of its economy.

Even when survivors do have tents, they are often inadequate for the needs of a fierce Himalayan winter. In Maira, where the Pakistan army finally dropped some tents - though not enough to go around - they were lightweight summer tents that are not even waterproof.

All over the quake-affected area, there is the smell of rotting bodies. No one has had time to dig out the corpses, such is the struggle to stay alive.

Even in a city that enjoys easy access, such as Muzaffarabad, the state of the relief camps is terrible. In one camp, we found 3,000 people sharing 12 toilets. These camps have already suffered outbreaks of diarrhoea and doctors fear cholera may follow.

Pakistani troops evicted quake survivors from one informal relief camp in the city as the sanitation and overcrowding were so poor that they feared for people's lives.

Some survivors said the Pakistan authorities had inadvertently added to their woes. In Maira, they said the authorities thwarted their attempts to draw on their savings to rebuild their homes by freezing their accounts for three months.

The move was apparently made to prevent villagers who drew out all their money from being robbed, but it left them defenceless against the elements.

With such a dire shortage of tents, many men are giving up their spaces to the women and children and sleeping outside. Among those who have to sleep outside are boys as young as 10.

Another problem is that villagers are reluctant to move down to the valleys. The Pakistani government has called on homeless quake survivors in villages where snow is imminent to go down. But often they don't want to go. "Where will we put our farm animals?" Raja Moidnaiz, of Maira, asked. "Even if we go down there, there are no tents for us."

He added: "The government is talking about villages where the snow is 10ft deep. Here, the snowfall is light - it's only 4ft deep."

That, however, is still deep enough to kill anyone without a proper shelter.

According to official figures, about 73,000 people died in the quake itself. Without urgent action in the coming weeks, that figure will grow by several thousand - victims of an additional disaster that was entirely avoidable.

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