October 20, 2005

Helicopters are Kashmir lifesavers but tents needed

By David Brunnstrom

CHIKAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Only from the air is it
possible to grasp the enormity of the disaster afflicting
Pakistani Kashmir, and only from the air is it possible to
reach many of the hundreds of thousands of suffering survivors.

Nearly two weeks after the devastating earthquake that hit
northern Pakistan, killing at least 50,000 people, many of the
tens of thousands injured are only now getting treatment.

Many others have yet to be reached, and serious wounds
remain untreated and open to infection.

The 7.6 magnitude quake devastated a wide area of Pakistani
Kashmir and Northwest Frontier Province, home to some of the
world's most forbidding mountain terrain, and in many areas
hardly a building -- brick or stone, wood or concrete -- is
undamaged; many are completely flattened.

Many roads have been blocked or swept away by landslides.

Floors of the breathtakingly beautiful valleys are dotted
with tents, which in happier times might suggest booming
tourism, but now signify a population made refugees in their
own land.

Only the fortunate yet have tents and with the snows of
winter just weeks away, hundreds of thousands more are needed,
especially in more remote areas.

With many roads blocked, helicopters have been the
lifesavers in a major aid operation. The fly throughout
daylight, but their carrying capacity is limited and there is a
shortage of the aircraft despite international pledges of more.

From Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani Kashmir, over 100
helicopter sorties are flown a day, bringing in injured, flying
out tents, medical supplies, doctors and nurses. The pace is
fast, priorities constantly juggled, space strictly limited.

Aid workers and Pakistani officials welcome the media as
news reports have helped galvanize a global aid effort, but
places for three Reuters journalists on an International
Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) flight meant three fewer
tents for villagers.

Dr Takao Suzuki and his team from the Japanese Red Cross
have been in Chikar for two days and have treated 250 injured
and evacuated more than two dozen. On Friday, they will jump on
a helicopter again and set up elsewhere in the disaster zone.


"Still there are a lot places that nobody has covered," he
said. "It's 12 days since the earthquake, but there are still
lots of open fractures, spinal injuries and very dirty wounds
because they are deep and left alone without any medical aid."

Many of the injuries would be easy to treat -- under normal

"The very sad thing is that it may be just a simple
fracture, but because of the hours they have walk to look for
treatment, it's really painful. If they get treatment right
now, probably they don't need amputation," Suzuki said.

Casualties are mainly flown to Muzaffarabad, where the ICRC
is setting up a 100-bed tent hospital at a cricket stadium, or
to the country's capital, Islamabad.

At the Muzaffarabad helicopter field a small casualty
station sees bursts of activity as injured are rushed in and
out on stretchers while helicopters wait nearby, their
thundering rotors throwing up clouds of dust.

Stretcher cases wait outside in the melee as space is
limited. There is little drama: the patients, many women, have
proved their stoicism in days of suffering without treatment.

But a little girl, both eyes bandaged, clutches hard to her
grandfather's shoulder as he runs with her in his arms to a
German army helicopter that will take her to Islamabad's
crowded children's hospital.

The emergency casualty work has been given top priority by
the government, but aid workers say the main worry is to ensure
shelter for hundreds of thousands before winter sets in and
difficult access to remote villages becomes virtually

"Shelter is crucial, and if people don't get that soon
there will be a crisis of a different kind -- people will start
dying of exposure," said Mia Turner, spokeswoman for the World
Food Programme. "It really is a race against time."

Already bitterly cold at night, by December, Chikar and
hundreds of villages like it will be under a meter (three feet)
of snow, and still their inhabitants have little or no shelter.

"All the houses have fallen down and we are sitting here
under the open sky," said Chikar resident Asia Bibi as her son
was treated for a fractured arm. "There are no roads, so we can
go nowhere. We need help and we need tents."