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South Asia earthquake: a few more days of grace

02-12-2005 Feature

At the best of times their lives are hard. And now, the Guja nomads of Lari village have even fewer ways than usual to withstand the onset of winter. A report by Jessica Barry.

We went this morning to deliver shelter and food to some 500 families in this hilltop settlement which lies in a remote offshoot of the Neelum Valley, north east of Muzaffarabad. As the helicopter touched down on a narrow, terraced stubble field, children fled in all directions, frightened by the noise of the chopper and choked by the rising dust clouds.

Within minutes a gang of strong-shouldered men were unloading the bales of tarpaulins and blankets we had on board. After a few more fleeting moments the chopper was airborne again, and heading off to fetch the next load of supplies, leaving us dust covered and windswept on the ground surrounded by a crowd of curious villagers.

  ©ICRC / pk-e-00447    
  The elderly will be among the most vulnerable as winter sets in    
    It was evident immediately that we had dropped into a different world from the one we had left in bustling Muzaffarabad 15 minutes earlier. In this village, the only substantial building was the mosque, a two-storey, stone edifice which had been badly battered by the earthquake but was still standing. All around it were the remains of people's mud brick homes, their roof beams tumbled, their walls crushed, unrecognizable as dwellings.

In the first chaotic days after the earthquake, villagers carried the injured for hours on their backs down the narrow goat paths leading to the valley. Army helicopters flew out the critically wounded to hospitals in Muzaffarabad and beyond.

According to one villager, more than 150 people, including his own father, died in Lari on the 8th October. " And in the surrounding area over 350 people were killed, " he explained.

We were standing in front of what was left of his home. Silently, he led us to see his father's grave 100 yards away in a stubble field; " So many of my extended family were killed in the quake, " he commented, " but they are buried in our summer graveyard, over the mountain. " He pointed to a towering ridge. " But my father is here, with us. "

" There were bodies everywhere at the beginning, and people just buried their loved ones where they lay, they were so busy, " he continued.

The grave was simple and unadorned; just a mou nd of earth surrounded by stones and covered with a plastic sheet to keep off the coming rain. Even the dead need protecting. 

" We don't want to move away from here, even if the winter is harsh, " our companion continued. " We must stay close to our kin, and in any case, this land has been ours for generations. How can we leave? What would we do with our animals? We can't leave them behind. "

The Guja migrate between summer and winter grazing grounds. Most had already left the high, summer pastures when the quake struck, making it marginally easier to reach them with aid, but once the weather turns bad it will be hard even to get to these relatively low altitudes by helicopter, the only means of bringing in supplies until now.

Surprisingly, there were no babies to be seen in the village. Toddlers played in the dirt and older children stared from their hiding places behind the corn and the stables. But of babes-in-arms there was no sign. In contrast a number of elderly men and women watched the unloading from a safe distance, squatting on the ground on the edge of the steep terraces, where the maize stalks poked up out of the dust like bristles. 

The mountain dwellers in these parts are incredibly hardy and the nomadic tribes more so than most. But these are not normal times, and the snow will be a killer for the old and vulnerable if they don't have shelter through the long months of winter darkness and cold.

Everyone we spoke to asked for corrugated iron sheets to make a refuge. " A tent won't keep out the wet, " explained one villager, " but tin sheeting will. "  

Once the tarpaulins, blankets and food that the ICRC is distributing to 43,000 families all along the Neelum and Jhelum valleys have been delivered, it will be the turn of the shelter kits that are now being prepared containing hammers, nails, wire cutters and other tools, together with the much-requested corrugated iron. 

But it will truly be a race against the clock to get it all in place before the weather breaks. And even on fine days there can be snags. Today, the operation had to be aborted before noon when the helipad, which was already a challenge to land on due to its extremely narrow width, began to crumble at the edge, making it too unstable for the chopper to touch down fully loaded without toppling over.

If the villagers can widen the landing site by tomorrow the rotations will resume, but it may take more than one day to get the work done. A day no one can afford to lose.

And there was no chance, today, because of the early departure from Lari, to sit with the women and hear their stories. It always takes time to reach the women's protected corner. First the formalities of meeting village heads and other dignitaries must be attended to, and only then, as a woman, are you privileged enough to be allowed to sit with the mothers and their children. 

So perhaps tomorrow or the next day. Nothing is ever guaranteed. And even this afternoon, looking out of my window back in Muzaffarabad, I can see dark clouds gathering over the mountains and a brisk wind tearing the leaves off the trees. Perhaps there will only be a few days of grace left. And there is still so much to do.