With great pains, assistance is delivered to isolated villages in Kashmir


© Jake Price

Thousands of tents, blankets and other winter necessities readying for transport to Pakistan where an earthquake struck on October 8, leaving massive numbers of people in entire regions homeless. As winter nears, the Pakistani population is increasingly desperate for supplies. The aid shipment is being distributed bny MSF who has been working in Pakistan.

 Lal Din shows the identity cards of his two sons. Both died in the earthquake. Aged 70 years, Lal Din is now the only surviving male and is now head of a family of six. The old man trails a wooden leg, a souvenir of the 1971 war against India. His four year old grandson was struck on the tibia during the earthquake and can no longer walk. One month after the catastrophe, the child has still not received treatment.

Lal Din tells his story, surrounded by his family, standing amidst the remainders of his house, now a heap of stones and beams. Nearby is the decomposing body of one of the six cows killed in the quake. The family now lives in a makeshift hut, with blankets serving as a roof.

Dilowali, Lal Din's small village, was not the most affected by the earthquake which struck the south Asian region on October 8. Approximately 40 per cent of the homes are completely destroyed and the remainder have signs of structural damage. It is a level of destruction that is less than in other areas. But from its location - a steep sided valley, near the Line of Control which separates Pakistani Kashmir from the Indian Kashmir that during the winter will be completely isolated from the rest of the world - it is one of the villages where the distribution of aid is most urgent.

On the day of our visit, the first snowflakes had started to fall. The villagers explained that the snow can be several metresmeters deep. Generally during the winter, the inhabitants rarely leave their homes and remain grouped around their fires. This year, if the assistance does not arrive in time, if they do not have enough shelters, the winter could be fatal.


© Jake Price

Thousands of families who were unable to stay near their homes for a variety of reason have relocated to temporary camps.

In a race against the clock, an MSF team works through the villages in the area - actually a series of houses scattered along the steep sides of the valley - to identify the families where the needs are most urgent. The MSF team is made up of two Belgian expatriates and ten Pakistani national staff members who come from the Bagh area, the district capital, and themselves victims of the catastrophe. A number of them have lost their homes. Some have lost relatives.

Each day the team awakes at dawn and, in groups of two, they leave for what will be an eight to ten hour walk. The houses are visited one by one to determine the needs for each family.

The questions are repeated at each home: "How many family members?"; "What is the condition of the house?"; "Can they rebuild by themselves, from start to finish?" ask Maksud and Shahid, the MSF volunteers.

In this isolated area, where people are used to being self-sufficient, many families began the rebuilding just days after the earthquake. They gathered the stones and the beams of the old house to build a new at the side of the ruin. Some have almost finished. Others, the weaker, those who have lost more, families who no longer have strong arms to help build, have not started yet.

Sajid Hussein, a neighbor of Lal Din, is just 20 years old. His father died a few years ago and, since then, he has taken on the role of head of a family of eight. Nobody in the family died at the time of the catastrophe, but their eight cows were killed and the house is in ruin. Sajid Hussein's arm was injured. The limb hangs, apparently fractured, unusable.


© Claire Reynaud/MSF

Families are given supplies to assist in rebuilding their lives. Often arriving on foot, the carry their loads on their backs.

"They gave me some pills", he said when asked whether he has had any treatment. He could not start to rebuild and did not receive help of its neighbors. They come from different tribes.

Maksud, the MSF volunteer, explained that the majority tribe here is Chaudrey, and their solidarity seems to function; the neighbors help each other to rebuild. But the members of minority tribes must manage alone. "If I do not receive external assistance, I will spend the winter with my uncle, lower in the valley", said Sajid Hussein.

This alternative - leaving the village - is unthinkable for the majority of the inhabitants. "People want to live on their own ground, it is all that they have," affirms Chabeer Ahmed, one of the chiefs of the village.

After having looked at the situation of each family, the MSF team has a chart showing those who will need help building a shelter for the winter. This chart will allow the families a supply kit which will be given to them in the coming days.

The kit includes sheets of corrugated iron, a cover, building equipment, blankets, kitchen utensils and hygiene supplies. But to be able to get this help the inhabitants of Dilowali will have to go to the Pir Hadji mountain pass, some 20 kilometers distant. The trucks that have brought the assistance from Islamabad, two days travel by road, but cannot continue on the road - now just a path - that descends into the valley.

The following day at 7am, 17 fully loaded trucks wait on the Pir Hadji mountain pass, some 2,700 meters high. The neighbouring peaks are covered with snow. The sky is black and the air cold and biting. Gradually, the locals get to the top. Some all terrain vehicles come with more than 20 people in them. The majority come by foot.

Within an hour, the distribution has started. As their name is called, each family - generally five men - approaches the trucks, receive the 200 kilos of material and they set out again with their loads on their backs towards the valley.

"During the previous distribution, when we started, it seemed impossible that they could carry so much material. But finally, at the end of the day, nothing was left," remembers Jean Pletinks, in charge for the MSF convoys.

This day, 200 kits (one per family, with an average of seven members per family) will be distributed. The following day, 200 other kits will be distributed. And the following week, a new convoy will have to bring 400 additional kits. If there is enough time.

MSF estimates that, by next week, the kits will have been distributed to approximately 21,000 people (3,000 families). Jean seems anxious: "If it still snows, the drivers of the trucks will refuse to come. Already this time, they complained, the road is too dangerous ".