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South Asia earthquake: solace and despair

18-11-2005 Feature

In an effort to reach remote villages soon to be cut off from the outside world by snow, the ICRC is continuing its deliveries of essential goods to the quake survivors with its fleet of helicopters. ICRC's Jessica Barry reports.


© ICRC / J. Barry 

The Jhelum valley was bathed in sunlight as we flew back from near the Line of Control in Pakistan-administered Kashmir last Friday in an ICRC helicopter. The scene below us was stunning. The narrow terraces that clung to the valley's steep sides were scattered with corn sheaves. Elsewhere, red, gold and yellow glints of colour showed where the trees were turning. The mountain peaks soared above our heads.

We had been in Pandu, a distribution spot on top of a mountain ridge 9,000 ft up in the clouds. When I arrived there at eight am that morning, it was snowing. Over the next four hours the light was in turns gloomy, opaque, full of glancing sun's rays, pristine clear and ringed with rainbows. It rained, then hailed, then snowed, and then turned fine again. It was an extraordinary scene. Defying the altitude the chopper pilots -- dodging the cloud masses and skirting the thunderstorms – returned to the place again and again with sugar, salt, tea, rice and g hee for 126 families from the surrounding villages. As the morning wore on elders trudged in from the countryside and made their way the distribution point to claim their due.

If these farmers and herders don't get rations and warm clothes and shelter for their families now they will find it hard to last the winter out on these desolate heights. Normally communities stockpile food, fodder and firewood during October to see them through until spring, but this year all the rhythms that aid survival have been turned upside down by the quake. And within weeks Pandu will be cut off from the outside world by snow. 

It took five days to get in all the food for the 878 households targeted for assistance. The weather miraculously held.

© ICRC / J. Barry 

On that first day though, despite the sunlight that warmed the valley as we flew back to Muzaffarabad on the last rotation, and despite the ethereal beauty of the peaks, nothing could conceal the scale of the disaster that has befallen this valley, nor its tragic aftermath.

Everywhere below us houses lay flattened, their corrugated iron roofs twisted and tumbled and glinting in th e light. Scattered trees, looking like match sticks on the autumnal slopes, broke up the woodland. Here and there, goats bounded away in fright as the chopper's shadow slid over the land. 

Kashmir is known for its bounty, for its apple and walnut trees, for its harvests and flowers and for its dignified, generous-hearted people. All but their dignity has been lost, people say.

During a visit to a destroyed village some days previously I had met the headmaster of a local school who had come to a Red Cross clinic to get medicine for his sick wife. Turning to me he said, " My special love is English literature, Keats and Milton and Shakespeare. "

" A thing of beauty is a joy for ever… " , he exclaimed softly, looking around at the mangled buildings ringing the dusty playground where we were standing, and at the knots of desperate, dirty, destitute people waiting for aid. He shook his head, excused himself, and disappeared into the crowd.

His words came back to me as the chopper descended over Muzaffarabad, itself largely in ruins. The long day of rain and rainbows, and slanting sunlight up on the heights was nearing its end. And I wondered whether the school master who had murmured Keats's sublime words had done so out of despair, or sorrow, or for solace at all that has befallen his countrymen and women. I hoped it was the latter, but it was impossible to tell.