'They are not giving out tents. Only those with political connections are getting them'

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The survivors grow more desperate by the day. The relief effort is failing, and thousands are without food or shelter. In the mountains above Balakot, the town that was completely destroyed by the earthquake, scenes that could come from the First World War are unfolding.

Soldiers are guiding a great train of 20 pack-horses over a rocky path. The horses are roped together and laden with supplies, but the going is difficult. There used to be a road here but it has disappeared under huge landslides. On either side the way is lined with collapsed piles of masonry where houses once stood. The smell of rotting bodies is on the air. All day the path is a great mass of people on the move.

They are still bringing the wounded down from the villages. They bring them down on makeshift stretchers, often just a few planks scavenged from the ruins of their homes. As we climbed up we came upon soldiers carrying two women down on traditional rope-beds. Their relatives had carried them down for hours until, exhausted, they ran into the soldiers who offered to take their places. Abdul Ghafour said they were his mother, Rashida, and sister Nadia. Both have been paralysed from the waist down since they were hit by falling rubble in the earthquake. For a week, they lay beside the ruins of their village, Sangar, unable to move, until the family despaired of help ever arriving and decided to bring them down the mountain themselves.

It is not that helicopters cannot reach here, like some of the most remote valleys. One helicopter has landed in Sangar village, but it just brought some food and medicine, and no more have come. Even with American helicopters diverted from Afghanistan, even with the Afghan army's own helicopters on loan, there are not enough to cope with the scale of this disaster.

The path is treacherous. Entire tree trunks block the way, swept up in the great landslides. Felled telephone wires lie dangerously across the route. To one side is a drop hundreds of feet to the river below. In some stretches where the path narrows, a false step could sen you plunging to your death. From time to time the landslides start up again, raining dirt and small rocks on the path, and everyone scrambles to get through before it gets bigger.

The exodus has begun. A lot of the people coming down the mountain say they have given up waiting for the relief effort and decided to abandon their homes and seek shelter in Pakistan's cities. Akip Mukhtiar is just 13, but he is struggling down the hillside with a huge bag almost as big as he is. Every member of the family has to bring what they can carry of the belongings they have managed to salvage from their ruined homes. What they do not carry now they will lose forever. Farmers are driving herds of cows and flocks of goats down the path. One shouts warnings to people to keep away from an aggressive bull.

The reason they are leaving is that there are no tents. Snow appeared on the mountain peaks here as temperatures plunged over the weekend. Over the coming weeks the snowline will move inexorably down the valley, and in four weeks' time it will reach the villages here. Then anyone who does not have proper shelter will die.

People come up to you on the path to beg for tents. One old man, grey-bearded and wizened with age, said: "Write it down, one tent." Both his children died in the earthquake. He and his wife were alone without shelter in the mountains.

Munir Abbas offered to take us to his village, Sangar, up the mountain path, and on the way he told the story of a community stranded without help from the outside world.

"It was the school that was hit worst," he says. "More than 200 children died there. I pulled my brother's son alive from the rubble but he died afterwards. If we had had proper medical help maybe he would be alive today. His leg was really badly injured, it was bleeding. I wrapped a cloth around to stop the bleeding but it didn't do any good. He asked for grapes. When I tried to put water to his mouth, he said 'I can drink it myself'. He died on the first night after the quake. His name was Hamza and he was 14 years old.

"His older brother Rustam died too. His body was completely destroyed by the rubble when we found it. We couldn't recognise him. I recognised him by his hand and his schoolbag." He says that looters came to the village pretending to help with the relief effort. They heped dig bodies out of the rubble, but snatched gold jewellery from their necks and fingers before the families could stop them.

Now most of Mr Abbas' family has left to stay with relatives in an unaffected town. Just Mr Abbas and his 60-year-old mother remain. She is refusing to leave her home, even though it is in ruins. "I've told her, when the snow comes we cannot stay here, or we will die," says Mr Abbas. "She says just a few days more, to put our property in order."

As we climb the mountain path, a friend of Mr Abbas stops him. "What are you still doing here?" he asks. "Your family has gone. Take your mother and get out of here."

Mr Abbas and his mother are staying under an old tarpaulin sheet the family used to cover their hay. "They are not giving out tents," he says. "they are only giving them to rich people and people with political connections. I know a man with connections in Balakot and I got a tent from him, but I gave it to my neighbour. He has lots of young children with him, and for us it's just my mother and me."

Down in Balakot people fight over the few tents there are, so desperate have they become. And anger is spilling over at the government of President Pervez Musharraf as stories true and false are retold about the Pakistani leader.

"I will never forget what President Musharraf said the first night," says Mr Abbas. "He said he had visited the area and only hundreds had died. When he said that it was like a knife in our hearts." Mr Abbas' name has been changed: he feared he could be punished for his criticism of the government.

Up in Mr Abbas' village, people are sleeping 50 to a basic small tent -- those who are lucky enough to have a place in it. Even the buildings that have not been completely destroyed are too badly damged to stay in. They could collapse at any time. Mr Abbas knows he will have to leave soon. With winter approaching, they cannot risk staying here without shelter. But first he must convince his mother to abandon her home.

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