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A snapshot of aid and impediments high in the Himalayas


A snapshot of aid and impediments high in the Himalayas

Providing relief to the hundreds of thousands of people affected by the October 8 earthquake in northern Pakistan is an ongoing battle against the rugged conditions in this remote and isolated region. UNHCR's Tim Irwin accompanied a recent mission to distribute supplies in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
14 November 2005
A convoy of UNHCR relief supplies crawls up a precipitous mountain road in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

MERA KALAN, Pakistan, November 14 (UNHCR) - A typical day starts at 6 a.m. And while this day will not end as it was planned, that in itself is typical in this massive operation to provide shelter across a region devastated by last month's earthquake. It's an operation that presents daily challenges and lessons in overcoming obstacles.

After everyone has emerged from their sleeping bags and stirred themselves with a quick cup of coffee or tea, we load ourselves into a small four-wheel-drive pickup. Our destination is the district of Mera Kalan, about 50 kilometres away, and 1,800 metres above sea level.

The area is remote, with few roads. In the coming weeks it will be covered by up to three metres of snow. But like so many people in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the inhabitants of the small villages carved into the hillsides are reluctant to leave their land, preferring to construct temporary winter shelters next to their shattered homes.

The mission is led by Mohammed Musa, a long way from his normal base in Karachi. He has been a part of UNHCR's earthquake relief operation from the beginning, working 14 hours a day, seven days a week.

We meet up with our four trucks on the outskirts of Muzaffarabad and form a convoy along the road which weaves through the Jhelum valley. Until recently, most of this road was closed by landslides. The heavy bulldozers of the Pakistani army have cleared nearly all of the blockages, but many sections are only wide enough for one vehicle to pass at a time. In places the asphalt hangs precipitously over the void left by the slipping earth. Stones are used to warn drivers not to get too close to the edge.

The trucks are carrying 150 tents, 4,500 blankets, 500 plastic sheets as well as hundreds of kitchen sets and jerry cans. The supplies arrived 24 hours earlier from Islamabad, but the process of getting them to these communities began thousands of kilometres away at UNHCR's warehouse in southern Turkey and has involved more than 70 sorties by NATO aircraft.

Two hours later, the convoy turns off the main road and begins the long, steep climb up to Mera Kalan. The road here is a mixture of rocks and dirt, which the overnight rains have turned into mud. On the higher peaks the rain has fallen as snow - a sign of how quickly the weather is changing.

After a few switchback turns, the wheels of the lead truck are spinning in the mud and progress comes to a halt. Musa sends Nader, who recently arrived from UNHCR's office in Quetta, to the nearby army camp to borrow a couple of four-wheel-drive trucks. The idea is that by off-loading some of the supplies onto these vehicles, our trucks can continue their climb up the mountain.

A crowd of men has gathered around the stalled convoy and one of them, an elderly man with a striking white beard, is telling Musa that his village at the top of the hill has received no assistance. The delay gives us time to assess the situation. The village, Naker Darian, is not connected to any road, so we walk up narrow tracks. The elderly man, Abdul Rashid Shaida, says he's "about 70" but strides up the slope effortlessly as we labour in his wake, panting and making frequent pauses to catch our breath.

Most of the houses in the village have been damaged rather than destroyed. "Given the condition of the houses and the fact that they receive such heavy snowfalls, tents are not the ideal solution," says Musa. "By providing people here with plastic sheets, blankets and other supplies, we can support their efforts to build temporary shelters using materials from their damaged houses."

Asked why the residents of Naker Darian remain in such a harsh and isolated place, Abdul Rashid answers simply: "Our land and houses are here. Where else will we go?"

The transfer of part of our supplies into the army trucks is nearly complete by the time we have climbed back down to the road. Now considerably lighter, the lead truck takes another run at the slope, and this time makes it across the troublesome stretch. Inspired by his success, the other drivers follow behind.

It's now late afternoon. The light is fading and the road conditions are getting worse. We're about an hour from our final destination, but some of the drivers are expressing misgivings about continuing. Nothing will be distributed after dark and the safest option is for the drivers to spend the night at another army camp a little further on, and for us to return to Muzaffarabad and start again early tomorrow.

We arrive back in Muzaffarabad 12 hours after leaving; then retrace our steps next morning, after setting off at first light. When we arrive at Mera Kalan, a queue of men has already formed at the distribution point. News of the supplies' arrival has spread, and there are more family representatives than we had expected. All of the tents, blankets and other items are distributed, but there is clearly a need for more. The team reassures the men they'll be back.

Additional supplies arrive almost daily from Islamabad, and another 500 tents will be set aside for this area. A combination of damaged roads, poor weather and the sheer remoteness of the area has meant it has taken 48 hours to complete this relatively small delivery. At the same time, the team has discovered additional needs in yet another village even more cut off and difficult to supply. For Musa, Nader and the thousands of other aid workers, soldiers and local people struggling to provide relief to more than 3 million affected people in the earthquake zone, the near round-the-clock work schedule looks set to continue.

By Tim Irwin in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan