January 2, 2006

Snow, Rain Bring Misery to Pakistan Survivors

By Robert Birsel

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan -- Heavy snow and rain brought more misery to Pakistan's earthquake survivors on Monday, halting relief work, bringing landslides down on roads and flooding tents across the cold, wet mountains.

There were no reports of deaths from sickness or accidents in the first severe weather of a late winter, a major test for the army and the United Nations, who are running the relief effort, and for more than two million homeless survivors.

More than a foot of snow fell on the mountains while a relentless icy rain drenched the valleys. The meteorological department said the bad weather might last until January 7.

"Everything is wet," said a weeping woman, Shakina, huddled with one of her three children next to a fire outside here sodden tent in a camp in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani Kashmir.

"This is very difficult for me and my children. We can't survive in this tent."

Hundreds of thousands are living in tent camps across the region and many more are camped out next to their ruined homes, in tents or crude shacks made out of salvaged bits of their old homes and building materials given by the army and aid groups.

In another tent camp in Muzaffarabad, survivors rushed to get tarpaulins being distributed by an aid group.

Monday was the third day in which bad weather forced vital helicopter relief operations to be suspended since the October 8 quake killed more than 73,000 people in northern Pakistan.

Heavy snow brought down tents across the region and the rain set off landslides, blocking three of the four main roads to Muzaffarabad, said a military spokesman, Major Farooq Nasir.

Army engineers were working to clear the blocks but the rain, and the threat of more slides, was making it dangerous, he said. "We were expecting this to happen, it happens every year."


The bad weather held off through December allowing medical supplies, shelters, beds, food and other needs to be flown and trucked up into the mountains.

The military and the United Nations say enough supplies are in place and the disruption to the aid effort is no cause for alarm.

"In terms of overall relief, it's not the end of the world," said U.N. logistics chief in Muzaffarabad, Natasha Hryckow.

But the International Committee of the Red Cross said it was expecting a flood of new cases of respiratory infections at its field hospitals and clinics when the weather clears enough for people to venture out.

"It's what we've always expected, now it's the reality," ICRC spokeswoman Jessica Barry said of the weather. "If it lasts, it's going to get more and more grim."

The Norwegian Refugee Council said the snow increased the dangers of avalanches, one of which killed 24 people last week after being triggered by one of the hundreds of aftershocks that have rocked northern Pakistan since October.

"If fear this tragic avalanche is the first of many to come this winter...and the danger will increase with more snowfalls," said its emergency program officer Ann Kristin Brunborg.

(Additional reporting by Abdul Waheed Kiani and Suzanna Koster)