Victims brave the cold to trek for help as rescuers run out of time

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The Independent Online

Three of his children died in the tremor. So did his mother. His house was destroyed. His wife and two children survived. When no help came to the ruined village, he left them with his uncle and set out on foot to get assistance.

His story is typical of thousands that are emerging as Kashmiris make it down from the mountains where their villagers have been cut off. The aid effort is only just getting through to the towns and cities; the villagers have had to fend for themselves. As they come down from the hills, they bring stories of village after village that has been destroyed, villages with 1,000 dead, villages with 3,000 dead.

In Mr Khatim's village, Lipa, they cannot afford to wait for help. It lies high in the mountains, near the ceasefire line between Pakistani- and Indian-held Kashmir, and the winter snows are expected in just two weeks. Now survivors are sleeping in the open. If they do not have shelter when the snow comes they will die.

"In the village, there is enough food for only one week," Mr Khatim said. "We need help for everyone in Lipa, not just my family. Very little help had come when I left. One helicopter dropped a little food, but it was not enough. The army has not helped us."

A Pakistani soldier standing nearby interrupted Mr Khatim, angrily berating him for blaming the army. But with his children dead and after his gruelling journey, Mr Khatim had had enough. Shaking with anger, he shouted back defiantly.

Every road in Kashmir is lined with desperate huddles of people. They hold out signs on which "Help" has been scrawled in English and Urdu to every car that passes. Just six months ago, the road where we met Mr Khatim was the scene of joyful celebrations, when it became the route for the first bus link between Pakistani and Indian Kashmir, reuniting families divided by war.

But now it has become a highway of despair, symbol of the devastation of this earthquake, blocked by endless landslides that have prevented aid from getting through, and thronged all day with crowds of villagers walking to stricken Muzaffarabad in search of help.

Mohammed Aslam had walked 16km from Dubbin village to find food for his family. But when he got to Muzaffarabad he was too late. All the food supplies being handed out by relief workers had been snatched by the homeless townspeople. Now, as evening fell, Mr Aslam was heading back home without the food he came for.

"All we have to live off in the village now is the milk from our goats," he said. It is not just food the villagers need. "Everybody in the village is sleeping in the open," he added. "Last night there was heavy rain and it was terrible. We had nothing to cover us. Only the children could sleep. The rest of us got no sleep at all."

Mr Aslam saw a Pakistani volunteer who had arrived at the first landslide that blocks the road just outside Muzaffarabad. He had two tents in his car. "Please give me a tent," Mr Aslam asked. But the volunteer, Raja Masoud Akram, had brought the tents 240km from his home town, Jhelum, for friends in Gari Dopatta, a village beyond the landslide.

"They phoned me and said, 'For God's sake please bring us tents'," he said. Mr Aslam begged him: "I understand, but please just one, just one." Mr Akram said he would try to bring more tents tomorrow.

Another passer-by said: "The situation is the same from here to the border with India. The people need tents and they need food. Please get the message out. We need tents here." There is an urgent need for medical help too. Mohammed Arif said that in Gari Dopatta, 18km beyond the first landslide, 20 girls had been pulled alive from the ruins of the sixth-form college, but many were seriously wounded and needed medical attention. "If they don't get help from a doctor they may die," he said. Gari Dopatta was the scene of an amazing rescue, unseen by the outside world because the village was blocked off. When the boys' college collapsed, 360 pupils were trapped. But the local people managed to dig through the rubble with their bare hands and brought 290 boys out alive; 70 did not survive. "There was no help; we had no special equipment, only our hands," Mr Arif said. "But everyone pulled together. After all, most of the people digging were parents."

He said 700 houses were destroyed in Gari Dopatta. Given the large family sizes in Kashmir - the average number of people to a house is five - that could put the death toll in that one village alone at more than 3,000.

The state of the relief effort

* The death toll from earthquake is estimated at 35,000, with tens of thousands more injured, two million homeless and four million affected. The UN warns measles and other diseases could soon claim even more lives.

* The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, in Islamabad, says Washington intends to honour its pledge to send $50m in aid. The World Bank says it will double its pledge to $40m. A transport plane bringing 25 tons of supplies such as tents and medicine from rival India arrived in Pakistan.

* Rescue efforts have given way to recovery, as hopes fade of finding survivors beneath rubble. Hundreds of bodies continue to be found crushed under collapsed buildings, while those still alive are taken by US, Pakistani, German and Afghan helicopters to overflowing hospitals. But in one case, a five-year-old girl trapped for nearly 100 hours in the rubble was pulled to safety.

* Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf thanked the international community for aid but appealed for more supplies. The International Red Cross also appealed for $54m.

* Trucks and helicopters carrying tents, blankets and medical equipment from about 30 countries are choking roads as the initial aid convoys start to reach those in need. But the hungry and homeless in some of the worst-affected, most remote areas are still waiting for help, four days after the earthquake struck.