November 15, 2005

Kashmiris trudge down from peaks as snow threatens

By Suzanna Koster

BALAKOT, Kashmir (Reuters) - A clear warning of the second
calamity facing quake-stricken Kashmiris is etched into the
face of Gulaam Rabani.

His two sons were entombed six weeks ago in the ruins of
his family's stone hut, high on the slopes of the Himalayas,
when the earthquake struck. But his family's tragedy is still

"I need a tent and one for my cattle," Gulaam said as he
trudged, shoulders hunched and eyes dimmed, with his two
nephews, three goats and two mules along the cracked main road
of Balakot, a town flattened by the Oct 8. quake.

Like thousands of alpine villagers in Pakistani Kashmir,
Gulaam and his nephews are leaving their ruined homes to the
oncoming snows, herding their precious livestock to lower
ground, afraid the animals or they might perish without proper

Gulaam's family would normally spend the winter at home,
keeping their animals inside a mud hut with a wood fire to keep
them warm. Caked in dust, he and his nephews have walked for
two days to reach Balakot, sleeping in the open on their way.

"Due to the earthquake we migrated, but before the
earthquake we never came down with the cattle," he said,
explaining that he was headed for Mansehra, still another day's
walk away, where the mountains met the plain and where he would
meet other family.

More than 3,000 survivors have descended to Balakot in the
past five days, Major Shahid Javed, a Pakistan army coordinator
of relief efforts there, told Reuters.

Most passed through toward Mansehra and some seemed more
concerned for their animals than for themselves.

"The culture is so that a man wants one tent for the
livestock and the next tent for them," said Colonel Saeed
Iqbal, in overall charge of relief for the Balakot area, where
an estimated 10,000-12,000 of the 74,000 quake victims died.

Every building in Balakot has been destroyed or damaged,
the army says. Tent villages have sprung up among the rubble.

"They want to come down because they all understand they
cannot live in the mountains in the winter in these tents,"
Iqbal said. "The tents we provided them are not good enough to
protect them from the snow."

Nazir Hussain, 43, was driving a four-wheel-drive through
the town with his wife, son and two daughters on Tuesday. One
of his brothers had died when their house had collapsed.
Another brother stayed at their village with their 35 goats,
cows and buffaloes.

"My house is completely destroyed," Hussain said, adding
that once he had dropped off his family off at Mansehra, he
would rejoin his brother so they could herd the animals down

For the hundreds that make the descent, many more remain
among the ruins of their homes among the clouds, unable or
unwilling to make the journey, leaving aid agencies warning
that people could freeze to death in a second catastrophe.

With winter just weeks away, around 3 million people,
mostly in Pakistani Kashmir, are estimated to have been
affected by the quake, including about 500,000 absolutely

After setting out on a clear, warm morning, Gulaam and his
nephews walked out of Balakot toward a cold, exposed night with
temperatures even at this gentler altitude approaching

Where will they sleep tonight?

"In the open sky," Gulaam said with a weak laugh and a
desperate look, holding his arms out wide.