October 15, 2005

Aid groups set up base for massive Pakistan task

By Robert Birsel

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) - Aid agencies set up
bases for a huge emergency and rebuilding task in
earthquake-shattered Pakistan as the official death toll topped
38,000 people.

As snow fell on peaks in devastated Pakistani Kashmir the
United Nations fitted out offices in tents at a sports field in
Muzaffarabad in an attempt to bring relief to over a million
people homeless since the October 8 disaster.

The government estimates damage at about $5 billion.

A fleet of helicopters, including some provided by U.S.
forces fighting in neighboring Afghanistan, was ferrying
emergency food supplies and shelter into the worst-hit areas of
Kashmir and adjoining North West Frontier Province.

Eight days into the disaster the government and the United
Nations say more tents and helicopters are desperately needed
despite global aid pledges of more than half a billion dollars.

"The number one priority is shelter," Prime Minister
Shaukat Aziz said on Saturday. "We need tents, tents, tents."

The toll from the quake is expected to rise, even without
the effects of the weather and disease that could arise from
ruined sewage systems and drinking water sources.

President Pervez Musharraf said on Saturday he was unsure
whether army rescuers had reached all affected areas and he
expected more bodies could be found once routes into the Jhelum
and Neelum valleys were cleared of landslides.

The new death toll put the disaster on a par with a quake
that almost destroyed the Pakistani city of Quetta in 1935.

Flights in and out of Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani
Kashmir, were severely disrupted by rain on Saturday but
resumed when skies cleared and dozens of flights brought in aid
and evacuated the injured.


More rain and thunderstorms were forecast on Sunday
followed by a cold spell in which temperatures are expected to
fall to as low as three degrees Centigrade (37 degrees

"Many people are out without shelter. It was miserable to
start with but with this things are only going to get worse,"
Robert Holden, operations manager of the U.N. relief effort,
said of the effect of the rain.

"We've also got the danger of further collapse of
buildings; a very, very difficult situation made even worse by
the rain."

Holden said the extent of the disaster remained unclear.

"We're looking at perhaps several hundred, potentially,
villages and small settlements that can't be reached by road,
that need to be reached and need to get supplies," he said.

Aziz said the damage was estimated at $5 billion and the
United Nations says recovery could take up to ten years.

Most buildings in Muzaffarabad are damaged or destroyed and
tent cities have sprung up made up of plastic awnings, old
signboards and a few real tents.

Refugees burn wood stripped from rain-soaked rubble,
plastic bags and bottles and even donated clothing -- whatever
they can find to keep warm and cook.

"It is very difficult. My children are crying all the
time," said Nasreen Ikram, her daughter by her side chanting
softly "Allah, Allah."

The smell of burning plastic hung in the air at one camp
housing some 2,000 people, along with the stench of dead bodies
still entombed in rubble.


Some international rescue teams have begun to leave because
the chances of finding anyone else alive appear to be fading.

Musharraf said rescue work would continue but experts said
it would be a miracle if anyone had survived for eight days.

In Islamabad, hospitals were overwhelmed.

At the main children's hospital, surgeons and doctors were
exhausted after working around the clock treating more than 700
patients in a facility designed for 220.

Many of the children have serious head, back and abdominal
injuries. Regular wards have overflowed and heavily bandaged,
scarred and bruised boys and girls of all ages are lying on
makeshift beds in lobbies, corridors, hallways and verandas.

"It's really a nightmare," said Professor Zaheer Abbassi,
head of pediatric surgery, adding there was an urgent need for
more doctors and surgeons and appealing for foreign volunteers.

He said 62,000 people were reported hurt in the disaster,
many of them children, so the crisis was far from over.

"We are expecting more children over the next one or two
weeks. I think this seems to be only the tip of the iceberg."

(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom, Faisal Aziz and
Zeeshan Haider in ISLAMABAD)