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Pakistan Quake Victims Trying To Survive Freezing Conditions

Thousands Of Quake Survivors Still Without Shelter As Harsh Winter Begins

Patience seems to have run out among some earthquake survivors in Balakot, at the lip of the Kaghan Valley in Pakistan's mountainous North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Many of those living in the tents dotted across the devastated landscape of the town are angry, and make no attempt to hide it.

"Just look at the situation here. People are dying of the cold, the living conditions are filthy and no one is helping us," said Aziz Hussain, his shrill tones swiftly drawing a small crowd that gathers around him. Many nod sympathetically as he adds, "I just don't understand what is happening to all the money we hear is coming in. It's certainly not being used here."

Many survivors of the October 8 quake say they are now desperate. An aged woman hugs a small grandchild close to her as she sits close by her tent. Despite the fact that the sun is shining, the icy breeze has a chilling effect -- especially with many quake survivors still lacking sufficient warm clothing, bedding, and adequate tents or heating arrangements.

Nearly 10 weeks after the quake, many victims are still in a miserable state, with the arrival of winter having added immensely to the hardships they face. Often cooking fires or oil stoves offer the only source of warmth, with families huddled around them through much of the day.

Poor sanitation, a lack of toilets and an absence of cooking arrangements add to the stench that lingers around many camps, with rotting rubbish lying in heaps in some areas. The conditions are ideal for disease to spread and diarrhea, pneumonia, scabies and lice infestations are common.

"My children have not had a bath for nearly three weeks at least. The best I can do is clean them with wet washcloths. There is never enough hot water and I can't possibly bathe them in cold water as I did until a few weeks ago," said Unaiza Bibi, 27, the mother of three children under eight years old.

With matted hair, welts indicating scabies visible on their arms and perpetually runny noses, the children show the effects of the conditions in which they live and there seems little hope that there will be much improvement before spring next year. "We can only hope we will stay alive till then," Unaiza said.

Balakot, a town that was once home to nearly 300,000 people, located some 220 km north of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, was one of the areas worst hit by the quake. Even now, barely a few buildings peek out above the ground, while makeshift shelters of every shape, size and description have cropped up across the area.

Rubble has been partially cleared, but large piles of it still lie in some areas. Since the earliest days of the quake, the town has been a focal point for the relief effort, with aid supplies and volunteers pouring in. The fact that despite this, the situation remains so bleak is testimony to the immense difficulties involved in helping the survivors of the quake, and also a reminder of the need for the aid effort to continue.

A few days ago, Jan Vandemoortele, the UN's humanitarian aid coordinator in Pakistan, warned after visiting camps in Pakistan-administered Kashmir that the onset of winter and snows could lead to clashes at camps as people became increasingly frustrated. "We are preparing ourselves for the worst, because it could be ugly," Vandermoortele said, while maintaining that preparations for any situation that might arise were fully in place.

Some local NGOs operating in Balakot have packed up and withdrawn, citing resource constraints as the reason why they are unable to continue their relief efforts. The perception that the outside world may be deserting them has added to the panic among some survivors based in the Balakot area. Families across the region have now started to stockpile what they can in fear that the delivery of goods may dry up over coming weeks.

In some cases, local police have had to move in to calm the situation. Further north from Balakot, in the mountains of the Kaghan and Allai valleys, conditions are said to be worse, even though the World Food Program (WFP) has rapidly delivered stocks for winter to people who have opted to remain close to their homes. Many of the villages are already inaccessible.

The focus of aid has now shifted to people based at camps and at lower altitudes. Efforts are on to try and expand facilities available at tent villages and to provide better protection from the cold. Waterproof sheets are being distributed and many local and international groups are racing to help set up shelters before snow covers the ground and blocks off roads to villages located in the mountain valleys.

"People have shown great fortitude and immense patience since the quake. But there is a limit to how long they can suffer in silence. Their anger is quite understandable," I A Rehman, Director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), said.

[Integrated Regional Information Networks is a project the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.]

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Albion Monitor December 21, 2005 (

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