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British choppers start airlifting large quantities of UNHCR aid to remote villages

British choppers start airlifting large quantities of UNHCR aid to remote villages

Two giant British RAF helicopters on Wednesday began a new airlift of thousands of UNHCR tents, blankets and other aid items to a string of stranded and heavily damaged villages in a remote valley in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
16 November 2005
A British Chinook helicopter taking UNHCR relief items to the Leepa Valley in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan, November 16 (UNHCR) - A major new United Nations airlift of relief supplies to thousands of families in the mountains of Pakistan-administered Kashmir got underway Wednesday, as UNHCR delivered nearly half of the 240 tonnes of aid slated for distribution in the remote Leepa Valley, with the help of two British Royal Air Force helicopters.

The giant, heavy-lift Chinook helicopters were used to carry the first round of supplies from Muzaffarabad to helipads in the area where they were distributed to families with the assistance of the Pakistan Army.

Over the next few days UNHCR is providing a total of 2,000 tents, 36,000 blankets, 4,000 plastic sheets, 4,000 kitchen sets and 4,000 jerry cans to the Leepa Valley, where an estimated 16,000 people - or almost half the population of 35,000 - have been affected by the October 8 earthquake which left at least 73,000 people dead overall.

"It is extremely important that we provide shelter and other supplies to these high altitude communities as quickly as possible. Snow is already accumulating on the peaks and soon these areas will be under several metres," said the UN refugee agency's emergency coordinator in the region, Christine Neveu.

Villages in the Banamula area, where UNHCR supplies were delivered on Wednesday, were cut off by landslides until very recently. Many of the residents of these remote communities are reluctant to leave their land and livestock, despite having received little assistance since the quake.

As the areas targeted by the airlift are generally too mountainous for the huge helicopters to land, the supplies are being loaded into nets which are then suspended from the aircraft.

Once the helicopters arrived in Banamula, the nets were unhooked and supplies were carried by the villagers to the distribution point. Families from 77 houses - some houses are hosting three or four families - walked for close to an hour from Lubgram village to pick up the items, which included one tent per family, two plastic sheets and three blankets per person. The Pakistan army cordoned off the area and helped with the distribution.

UNHCR field assistant Mohammed Musa Khan had arrived in the Banamula area (which covers 13 villages in all) two days earlier in order to prepare for Wednesday's airlift. "We had to assess the landing areas and to find out where the most urgent needs were," he said. "There was some confusion over how the distribution would take place, and after a day of discussions, the villages agreed on a system that would allow everyone to get something."

Despite its remoteness, the Leepa Valley's inhabitants do not give the impression of people living in the back of beyond. "This is a poor but highly-educated population. Many of them speak English," said Khan. "Many of the families lost their homes and even their land in landslides triggered by the earthquake."

Ahead of the airlift, he also demonstrated to the villagers how to set up tents for the winter, using corrugated iron and plastic sheets for added insulation.

Another distribution point was set up in Mundal in the Naukot area. "It's been an exhausting few days," said Khan. "We'll start again at eight tomorrow to reach some of the badly-affected villages."

The airlift operation, which will subsequently include other UN agencies' supplies as well, is due to last five days, with the Leepa Valley distribution expected to be completed on Saturday.

The supplies are loaded into nets suspended from the Chinooks, enabling them to deliver without landing.

As part of the joint UN relief operation, UNHCR is responsible for camp management. Together with partner agencies, Pakistani non-governmental organizations and the army, UNHCR is involved in a total of 20 camps across the quake-affected area with a capacity to shelter some 32,000 people.

Since the start of its emergency operation, UNHCR has provided a total of 19,356 tents, 152,325 blankets, 71,395 plastic sheets and tens of thousands of jerry cans, kitchen sets and other supplies. More of the agency's supplies are coming in on daily NATO flights from Turkey, and a trainload of blankets is also currently on its way from India.

By Tim Irwin in Muzaffarabad
and Vivian Tan in Islamabad