The Kashmir earthquake: Failures on the road to disaster

Refugees from far-flung mountain villages are on the move in search of shelter before the first snowfalls. The relief effort for the homeless is desperately underfunded and disease has struck the camps. Justin Huggler reports from the Neelum Valley
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The Independent Online

In a week or two, the snow will arrive here. Higher up the valley, the locals predict that the next time it rains, it will be as snow. Yassir is 13 years old. If he does not have any shelter when the snow comes, he will die.

Below in the city of Muzaffarabad, people are living crammed together, five families to a single tent. There just aren't enough tents to go around and not enough room in them. Some of the men have to sleep outside. The ground is covered with human faeces and open sewers run through the refugee camps. There has been a serious diarrhoea epidemic and, although aid workers will only whisper it, there are growing fears of a cholera outbreak.

These are the people the international community has failed. With winter looming, the relief effort remains desperately underfunded. Within weeks, the "second massive wave of death" warned of by UN secretary general Kofi Annan may begin.

The road to the remote Neelum valley, north of Muzaffarabad, was finally opened yesterday, a month after the earthquake. Before the bulldozers had even finished clearing away the last of the rubble, the people started coming down out of the hills. They walked, some for more than 30 miles, to Muzaffarabad to beg for food and tents, then they turned around and set off back up into the hills, carrying whatever they had been able to get with their bare hands.

It was a Biblical scene, the people pinched with hunger and coated with dust. Many were clearly exhausted, but such was their desperation they had to go on. They carried their food and tents in anything they could get their hands on, old suitcases and bits of sack.

Aleem Usmani was carrying 10kg of flour in one hand and a bag full of supplies in the other. He had a 21km walk back to his village ahead of him, much of it up steep hillsides. "When you are hungry enough, you can carry it," he said. "No aid has come to my village, no NGO has reached there." His village, Ghanjer, lies high on the mountainside.

The charity World Vision says that aid still has not reached 250,000 earthquake survivors in Pakistan. Further up the valley, in the village of Khori, we found Yassir beside the ruins of his home. The family managed to get hold of one small tent, but it was only big enough for the women and the youngest of the children. Yassir has to sleep outside with the men.

Yassir and his brothers can already see the snow on the mountain peaks in the distance. Soon it will be here and they cannot stay outside. Yassir is one of many waiting for the ceasefire line that divides Pakistani- and Indian-held Kashmir to open. His father was killed in the quake, and now he and his brothers want to cross the ceasefire line to spend the winter with their uncle. It is the only place they know they will get shelter from the snow.

The family fled here from Indian-held Kashmir in the 1990s when fighting between Indian soldiers and militants was at its heaviest. Now they want to flee back from the prospect of winter without shelter. India and Pakistan have agreed to open the ceasefire line at five points but so far only one has opened.

The only organisations bringing aid up the Neelum valley are Islamic militant groups that once fought across the ceasefire line in Indian Kashmir. Yassir's village has been adopted by the Hizbul Mujahedin faction, who gave the family their tent.

Many of the other villagers have given up on waiting for tents and resorted to building crude shelters. Ghulam Hussein has made a basic shelter for his and his brother's families with bits of aluminium roofing rescued from the wreckage of his home for walls, and thin plastic sheeting for a roof. Twenty people live crammed inside, including Mr Hussein's one-year-old child.

"We cannot live here when the snow comes," he says. The plastic sheeting roof will not take the weight of snow.

Scenes like this are being repeated in villages all over Pakistani Kashmir and not just in places that have been cut off by landslides. The village of Maira, in the mountains above Bagh, has been accessible for weeks, but its people are still sleeping under plastic sheets stretched across simple wooden frames.

In the cities it is little better. The refugee camp at the university campus in Muzaffarabad is a desperate, squalid place. There are just 12 latrines for 3,000 people, and many have resorted to defecating in the open, where children play.

At dusk the people's faces glow red in the lights of a thousand cooking fires. Made with whatever fuel the people can lay their hands on, including plastic waste, they give off an acrid smoke that chokes and stings the eyes.

Tariq Bashir lives here in a tent shared by three families. At night 20 people are crammed inside. But he is one of the lucky ones: he has a winterised tent that can withstand the snow. Most of the tents here cannot; many are not even waterproof.

At night armed gangs roam the camp and there have been shootings and stabbings. This week four people were wounded when a fight broke out between two rival religious groups.

But that is the least of the camp's concerns. There were 200 cases of acute diarrhoea in the camp this week, including cases of dysentery. So far, none has proved fatal, but a quarantine centre is being set up for those affected to prevent the infection spreading, and tests are being carried out to determine the cause of the outbreak.

However, health workers' worst fear is an outbreak of the cholera. "I don't know by the protection of which God it is that we haven't had a fatality here until now," said Traqi Habib Guddat, a German volunteer for the NGO Humanity First, which has set up a field hospital in the camp.

Governments have not yet made good their pledges

As relief organisations struggle to get help to the needy, foreign governments have failed to match their pledges with hard cash for the earthquake victims.

Pakistan's government says it has received just $9.5m (£5.4) out of $2bn pledged by foreign donors for earthquake relief.

The United Nations says it has received only $133m towards its appeal for $550m, despite total offers of more than $1.3bn. The organisation needs $42m to maintain the Pakistan relief effort at current levels and stop the situation deteriorating before winter sets in.

The UN stresses that reconstruction is a long way off. "We are still in the emergency life-saving phase, still trying to reach people in inaccessible areas, still trying to establish relief camps and get supplies of food and medicine through before roads are cut off by snow. This is unprecedented. In similar disasters this life-saving phase is normally over within a couple of weeks,'' said a spokeswomen.

The speed and size of the response of outside countries appears small compared with the response to the 26 December tsunami. A month after that, the UN appeal was 80 per cent complete; the Pakistan appeal is only 24 per cent complete a month after the quake.

Oxfam has calculated the amount of money contributed by the main donor countries as a percentage of their economies, arriving at a "fair share" figure.

By this measure, Sweden, with 170 per cent of its fair share, tops the table. Britain is 12th at 24 per cent and the US 16th at 6.9 per cent. However, the US tops the list of individual donors. Spain, Portugal, Greece, Finland and Austria have contributed nothing.

The UNsays the reasons for the slow reaction appear to be a combination of factors. In many countries, it is the end of the budget year. It has also been a year of natural disasters, and aid for the tsunami, famine in Africa and Hurricane Katrina has taken its toll on the ability of some nations to help.

As the response to 'The Independent's' appeal has shown, public contributions have been greater than governments'. In Britain, £30m has been donated by the public. Although this is much smaller than the £300m offered after the tsunami (including £3m raised by 'Independent' readers), the Disasters Emergency Committee says it is "very pleased with the response".

Terry Kirby

The Independent's Asia Quake Appeal

Independent readers have raised a massive £546,928 in response to the appeal launched one month ago to help the Kashmir earthquake victims.

The Asia Quake Appeal was launched on 12 October through the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), which is co-ordinating aid from 13 British charities, including Oxfam and Save the Children. A spokeswoman praised the generous response, but warned that "with winter drawing in, there is still a desperate need for more funding."

Ninety pounds will buy a winterised tent, while £42 buys a family survival kit that lasts for 20 days, and £15 buys seven blankets. Readers can still donate via The Independent website (www.independent.co.uk/donate).

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