'Why has nobody come to help us' they ask in the remote villages devastated by quake

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The Independent Online

Six days after Gujarat's devastating earthquake, relief has yet to reach villages in the interior where whole communities are sleeping in the open outside their shattered homes.

Six days after Gujarat's devastating earthquake, relief has yet to reach villages in the interior where whole communities are sleeping in the open outside their shattered homes.

In the village of Dinara, 52 miles north of Bhuj, the capital of the Kutch region, the inhabitants surrounded my car complaining bitterly about how they have been overlooked.

"Nobody has come to help us - not the army, not anybody," said a matriarchal tribal woman in a multi-coloured smock inlaid with tiny mirrors, her arms heavy with dozens of bangles. "We've had no proper water supply for five days. In the quake some wells were destroyed, and in others the water has turned brackish. We've had to drink it for want of anything better. One private relief truck came with biscuits and snacks but that was all. We are running out of grain - we normally buy it in the village of Khavda, but all the shops there are closed."

Outside Khavda, three miles away, an Indian army field ambulance regiment based in Punjab arrived yesterday morning and set up a field hospital. "We've only just set up our tents and already we've got 71 patients," said Lieutenant AK Rastogi as a trail of victims arrived on stretchers.

"The situation is pretty bad. Most of the emergencies have already been sent to hospitals near Bhuj, but some patients have received no treatment for five days. This includes people with fractured arms and legs."

Now the army, with 120 soldiers and six doctors, has started to ferry patients from outlying villages to the field hospital.

While international attention has focused on Bhuj and the large towns near by, where the disaster has been most spectacular and accessible, the far-flung communities north of the city have also been badly hit, but both media and relief agencies have been slow to get to grips with their tragedies.

Authorities in the state of Gujarat, whose towns and villages were devastated by the earthquake, said yesterday that 12,000 bodies had been recovered. The total death toll is likely to run to 25,000, officials said.

According to Lieutenant Shanker Ramnath, of the Third Sikh Light Infantry, doing a reconnaissance in the area, more than 1,000 people have died in the villages north of Bhuj. Khavda, the last big village (with a population of 5,000) before the Great Rann of Kutch, the arid salt flats 12 miles away that run all the way to the Pakistan border, has been almost completely destroyed.

"There were 300 houses in the village," said Jadarji Thacker, the village headman, sitting cross-legged in a tent outside the remains of the high school. "But only seven remain. Nine people have died here, 75 in the surrounding area. We are getting food relief from Swami Narayan Ashram [a Hindu temple active in distributing food to the needy] in Bhuj. We've received no aid from the army or the police, and we don't want any either."

The narrow lanes of Khavda's bazaar are knee-deep in rocks dumped here by the disintegration of the nearby houses and shops. Ishmael Kalipha is standing outside the wreckage of his barber shop. The exterior wall has disintegrated, exposing the single barber's chair piled with rocks, a dangling cube light and wall posters of Bombay and a Swiss chalet. "If you think you can, you can," runs the cryptic message under the chalet. "And if you think you can't, you're right."

Ishmael wears a floral headband and a vermilion, embroidered shawl over his sky-blue pyjamas. "I had one customer in the chair and I was cutting his hair, and two others were waiting," he explained. "Then the building started shaking and the customer in the chair dashed out of the shop and was instantly killed by a falling rock."

Ishmael himself ran from the shop and managed to shelter under a nearby bus. "What am I going to do now? I will start again in a tent in the open." Beyond that he doesn't care to speculate. In the tribal village of Dinara, three miles north, the only fatality was a toddler crushed by rocks outside her home, although six other residents died elsewhere in the region.

The village, like others in the desert interior of Kutch, contains a mixture of dwellings, ranging from concrete buildings, homes built out of rock and tile, to the traditional Kutchi tribal house: circular in plan with walls made of cow dung and sand baked in the sun, and roofs of home-made thatch that are replaced every year. Many of Dinara's stone houses have been destroyed, and the few concrete buildings have been damaged. But the tribal houses are mostly unscathed. A larger one, with a diameter of 12ft inside, sustained a 1in crack in the wall. None has been destroyed.

The traditional Kutchi builders clearly knew what they were doing.

Aid continues to pour in to the city of Bhuj, meanwhile, and complaints are growing that it is being bottled up in the big city and the authorities are failing to target relief where it is most needed.

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