Healer to the stars

BARBARA RIGHTON January 9 2006

Healer to the stars

BARBARA RIGHTON January 9 2006


Winter comes to the ‘rooftop of the world,’ along with infighting over scarce food supplies and a rising death toll. Story and photos by Adnan R. Khan.


The ful Neelum place, the Valley jewel used of Pakistan’s to be a peacestake in Kashmir, named after the Neelum River— “neelum” means “blue gem”—and its ice-blue glacial waters. Now, nearly three months after the devastating earthquake that rocked the region, killing at least 87,000 people, Pakistan’s sapphire valley continues to fracture, both literally and figuratively. Aftershocks threaten to dislodge entire mountainsides, daily rockslides bury roads newly cut out of cliff faces, and winter, notoriously brutal in this alpine environment, is looming. But perhaps more significantly for the months ahead, fissures have formed in society as well, pitting relief workers against survivors, survivors against survivors, and Pakistani authorities against everyone. In the midst of the chaos, despite the massive global relief effort, some victims of South Asia’s most destructive natural disaster in decades are falling between the cracks.

“Humans live off humans. That’s the sad reality.” It’s not often you find a Red Cross worker who will speak so frankly about his work. They are famously diplomatic when it comes to dealing with the media and they have to be: it’s the only way they can retain the neutrality that gives them access to some of the most inaccessible disaster areas in the world. But this one is willing to talk, albeit anonymously, as a helicopter delivers yet another load of relief supplies to this Pakistani

army supply depot: blankets and foodstuffs destined for a few of the estimated three million people left homeless by the 7.6 magnitude tremor that struck the region on Oct. 8. “I don’t know if these supplies will reach the people that need them most,” says the worker. “To be frank, I’ve never experienced the level of theft and dishonesty as I’ve seen in Kashmir, but I’m not surprised. I’ve seen these types of operations too many times to be surprised by people taking as much as they can for themselves at the expense of others.”

With winter settling in, relief agencies are scrambling to ensure help reaches everyone in time. In some villages, crowds of men gather around helipads, waiting all day for the next relief flight to arrive—as their homes remain demolished, their maize harvest untended, and their women wonder when they will get back to the task of preparing for the winter season.

The chaos is stretching the patience of many relief workers, even as earthquake victims scramble to survive. In the remote and vulnerable village of Katha Chogali, 2,500 m above sea level in the upper Neelum, locals say relief is no longer being sent in. “Four or five Pakistani army flights came in during the early days after the earthquake,” says Muhammad Gujjar, a 67-year-old villager. “But people started fighting over the supplies they brought. Some of the stronger clans took control of the goods and distributed them among their own family members. Then, the flights suddenly stopped.”

Since then, many villagers have had to fend for themselves, constructing temporary shelters out of the rubble of their shattered homes. Food supplies have been scarce; only the odd 4x4 has made the treacherous 2V2hour journey up the dirt track from the main road, bringing small quantities of basic supplies such as flour and cooking oil—sold at premium rates. Once the snows come, all vehicular access will likely be blocked. Villagers will then have to make the two-day-long round trip by foot to the main road, carrying back any supplies they can.

“We’ll survive the winter as best we can,”

says Gujjar, taking a rest with his sons from rebuilding one of the family homes. “What other choice do we have? We have to work for ourselves. Waiting for relief to arrive helps no one. We’re working as a community now, sharing whatever supplies we have with the people who need them the most. That’s the only way we will survive.” But the co-operation is limited. Gujjar points to one house a few hundred metres from his own, roughly reconstructed out of scrap wood. It belongs to one of the clans he and other villagers accuse of stealing relief supplies.

At that house, Fatima, the wife of the family patriarch, nervously points out the cache of tents and medicines stored in a corner. “This was left over after we distributed supplies to the rest of the villagers,” she says, visibly agitated. “I’m not lying when I tell you this. We were fair in how we gave out things.” In fact, Fatima insists, the men in her family, conspicuously absent, have gone again to the relief supply depot on the main road to collect more for the village.

‘To be frank, I’ve never experienced the level of theft and dishonesty as I’ve seen in Kashmir.’

But other villagers scoff at the suggestion of altruism in Fatima’s family. “They will keep

it all for themselves and we will be left with nothing,” says Sattar Mohman, a 55-year-old villager recovering from a broken leg he suffered in the quake. For people like Sattar, faith in the future has crumbled along with the chunks of mountainsides shaken loose by the massive tremor. And cynicism is spreading not only among the destitute but also those working frantically to bring them aid.

“The Pakistani government is going beyond the needs of these people,” says Dr. Ahreena Badar, 26, a physician from Karachi working with the U.K.-based Merlin relief agency at

FINGER-POINTING: Tf there is another tragedy, it will be the people’s own fault.’


Panjkot, a village four hours by road from Katha Chogali. “It’s not sustainable. The more these people get, the more they ask for. They’re becoming dependent on aid, just like the Afghan refugees who came to Pakistan when the civil war started there 25 years ago.” Many aid workers and Pakistani military officers agree, though a few concede that it’s too early, in light of the impending winter, to be influenced by the negative side of the relief operations.

With so many people left homeless, the scale of the earthquake in Kashmir rivals the devastation left in the wake of the Asian tsunami. In some ways, it is worse. The millions left homeless in the altitudes of the Karakorum mountains face a climate as unforgiving as the earthquake itself. A recent cold snap in northern India and parts of Pakistan, in areas that were spared the full brunt of the quake, is a grim forecast for the coming months: at least 38 people have died so far as a result of freezing temperatures. Death from exposure is common in this mountainous region, famously called the Rooftop of the World, even in the best of times. And these days are, according to most locals, the worst of times in living memory. Even in the best-case scenario, if enough relief was to reach 99 per cent of the affected population, that would still leave as many as 35,000 people vulnerable.

Millions are homeless in a region where death from exposure is common in the winter

Todd Shea, project coordinator for Operation Heartbeat, a U.S. NGO providing medical relief primarily in the Jhelum Valley, says the logistical difficulties of working in as inaccessible a region as Kashmir have been the biggest hurdle facing relief efforts. “Even if we had all the helicopters we needed,” he says, “the terrain would make it impossible for them to all work at the capacity required to meet the demand. Many of them would just end up sitting idle.” Theft and dishonesty are compounding the problem, Shea admits—even as some officials deny that a problem exists. “Everyone has what they need to survive the winter,” says Maj. Farooq Nasir, a spokesman for the Pakistani army. “One hundred per cent of the affected areas have been serviced. If there is another tragedy, it will be the people’s own fault.”

The reality is far different in Bhari, a village of 110 people tucked into a narrow gorge 1,900 m above sea level on the dirt track to Katha Chogali. Unlike the villagers farther up the mountainside and those below along the Neelum River, the people in Bhari have barely seen any relief. In fact, sandwiched between towering cliffs, they’ve barely seen sunlight. Their homes rendered unlivable by frequent rockslides because of aftershocks that continue to inject fear into daily life, they subsist on the meagre supplies they received in the initial round of relief missions shortly following the earthquake.

The tents that were provided are useless now against the persistent chill. With no sunlight to provide some warmth during daylight hours, the stream running through the village has frozen over. Nighttime temperatures plummet below freezing and the drafty shelters the villagers have managed to build out of corrugated metal sheets provided by the Islamic Relief Foundation—the only NGO to visit them—have not been properly winterized with plastic sheets and tarpaulins to block out the wind. “Supplies never reach us,” says Muhammad Yousuf, 38. “Some helicopters flew over on the way up to Katha Chogali. We tried to wave them down, we even set up our own helipad, but we never received any of the aid they dropped off. And the aid that reaches the villages in the lower valley never reaches us either—it’s used up by the villagers there.”

At the Pakistani army’s relief depot, a two-hour drive from Bhari, the commanding officer is unimpressed by the description of the village. “These people all complain that they don’t have enough,” he says, lounging on a mound of blankets in his heated tent. “They’re lazy and greedy. They’re hoarding supplies.” He refuses to send a team to check on them, arguing there aren’t enough resources to spare for every villager who complains about needing more.

Outside the officer’s tent, evening has fallen, and the temperature along with it. It is another clear night, in a two-week series of clear nights that have been a blessing for people in places like Bhari and Katha Chogali. The snows are late this year, but when they come, they will be severe. And the consequences are likely to be tragic. M