January 4, 2006

Aid helicopters back in Pakistan quake mountains

By Robert Birsel

LARI, Pakistan (Reuters) - Helicopters flew again in
Pakistan's earthquake zone on Wednesday, allowing aid agencies
to reach survivors for the first time since snow blanketed
highland villages and rain set off fresh landslides at the

More than 2 million people have been living in tents or
crude shelters patched together from ruined homes since the
October 8 quake killed more than 73,000 people in northern

A long-anticipated cold spell struck on Saturday,
blanketing highland areas with snow and grounding relief
flights, while drenching, icy rain flooded makeshift lowland
tent camps.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the
World Health Organization say they have not seen a surge in
numbers of sick or deaths since the freezing weather set in.

But there are fears that with countless people still in
inadequate shelter, things could get a lot worse, including a
possible surge in killer diseases and an exodus of desperate
people from the mountains into crowded tent lowland camps.

Mountain villagers said snow had brought down many tents
and they were short of materials to build better homes and fuel
to keep warm. But they were determined to see the winter

"A sparrow likes to sit on thorns," said Abdul Rehman, an
elderly man with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders at
Lari, a village in the Neelum Valley northeast of Muzaffarabad,
capital of Pakistani Kashmir.

"This is our native land, we have to cultivate this land.
It will get colder than this, but we can't go," he said,
standing in about nine inches of snow.

Tents and shelters made of corrugated iron, wood and
plastic sheets dotted terraced, snow-covered fields around
Lari, where a damaged concrete mosque was the only building
left standing.


Landslides triggered by the earthquake cut off the Neelum
Valley for weeks. The army carved new stretches of roads out of
crumbling cliffs, but the recent snow and rain brought fresh
slides down the fractured mountains, again cutting the road.

The army and relief officials say good weather in December
allowed them to pre-position more supplies than they had
expected and most people should have enough to sustain them
even if relief flight are grounded again and roads blocked.

An ICRC helicopter stopped in three villages to assess the
medical situation and prepare for a second distribution of six
weeks' supply of food to 200,000 people.

"The situation might get worse, especially for the children
and elderly people," said ICRC delegate Veronika Talviste.

"These people used to have road access, access to go to the
doctor, to the market, but now they are completely cut off and
dependent on aid for the things they need."

Pakistan's Meteorological Office said only isolated snow
was expected in the coming week, but temperatures were falling.

Aid workers say there is a dangerous shortage of corrugated
iron for better shelters and too many people were stuck in
summer tents in the snow and freezing rain.

"As the first snow has shown, they cannot make it through
winter in tents in the mountains," said Talviste.

"For people up in the mountains it's going to get very
difficult and I don't think they really realized until the last
few days how difficult it will be."

ICRC doctor Wouter de Boom said his hospital in
Muzaffarabad had seen only a few cases of pneumonia, despite
reports of deaths from a surge in respiratory infections. He
was more concerned about people's deteriorating physical and
mental strength.

"People in general do not look very malnourished, but they
look tired. If you look into the eyes of the children they look
tired, and a large part of the population is suffering from
sadness and mental problems due to sadness," he said.

"Old people and children are at risk because if you are
tired and sad the whole care for the family deteriorates."

The situation for many of the hundreds of thousands in tent
camps is also dire after the rain flooded many out. An elderly
man died in Muzaffarabad on Tuesday. His family said cold
killed him but medical staff said they could not confirm that.