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The Rediff Special/Mohammad Shehzad in Muzaffarabad
Pak Army sells quake victims' tents
December 09, 2005
Travelling to Muzaffarabad today is a very different experience from what it was immediately after the October 8 earthquake.
In those days, one would have to wait for hours in traffic snarls caused by people from all parts of the country rushing to the city and the adjoining villages with truckloads of relief goods. There were queues -- spread over kilometres -- of vehicles loaded with food supplies and clothes. The two-and-a-half hour journey from Islamabad to Muzaffarabad stretched to anywhere between six and eight hours.
Today, the same road is almost desolate. The supply of relief goods has dried up. The mountains in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir have become a deadly killer. Covered with a thick layer of snow, the cold, winding mountain passes have brought winter and misery for the quake victims.
Most of the quake-hit in PoK are without shelter, adequate food supplies and warm clothes. The last week's first wave of snowfall has killed eight people, including five children in Abbottabad, North West Frontier Province, who died of pneumonia.
Forty-two-year-old Jannat Bibi is beating her chest and pulling her hair out in agony in her thin tent at the University Town Camp in Muzaffarabad. Her two-and-half month old daughter Zainab is dead.
"Zainab contracted pneumonia after the snowfall dropped the temperature to 4 degrees Celsius. She died yesterday. I could not protect her against winter with this cloth-tent. I did my best. I lit a fire but still it was too cold in the night. I have been begging the army for a winterised tent that I never got. My daughter would have still been alive had I got it," she wails.
The University Town Camp is home to about 800 people. It has around 150 tents. Even under a shining afternoon sun, you shiver inside a tent. The floor is as cold as a slab of ice.
People try to keep their tents warm by laying plastic sheets on the ground and burning wood and shrubs inside. It has caused several deaths, with tents catching fire.
When Jannat's story is brought to an army officer's attention at the Stadium Ground Helipad, he says, "Thousands of victims are sleeping rough without tents. We can't provide everyone tents and that too 'winterised' ones!"
Many villagers living on the mountains are desperately looking for tents. But the helicopters are dropping just food.
"I would chase every helicopter hovering over the Neelam Valley hoping that it might drop a tent. I waited for two weeks and finally decided to come to Muzaffarabad. I hoped to get a tent from the army relief camps. I literally begged for a tent but no one took pity on me. I went to the mujahideen [jihadis] of Jamatud Dawa who provided me a tent immediately," says Ali ur Rehman, a Neelam Valley villager.
"People are walking barefoot on snow in the Neelam Valley," he adds.
On the condition of anonymity, a United Nations official reveals a big tent scam.
UNHCR [the UN refugee agency] gave the Pakistan Army more than 2,000 winterised tents for distribution among the most deserving quake victims living at an altitude of 5,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level, the official says.
The army officers sold them in Islamabad's markets.
A farmer named Nizamuddin bought one such tent for one of his relatives living in PoK. The UNHCR checked the local markets and it was confirmed that its tents had been sold.
The UNHCR has discreetly taken up the issue with Federal Relief Commissioner Major General Farooq Ahmad Khan, who has assured the agency that the 'culprits will be brought to book.'
Some weeks ago, Army Spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan made a similar statement when the Dawn reported that an army captain was caught red-handed stealing and selling tents in Rawalpindi.
Cut back to Muzaffarabad.
A crowd surrounds the tent of 38-year-old Bashir Ahmad. His 68-year-old father Sultan Ahmad has been found dead. The cold killed him. Bashir too had been running from pillar to post for a winterised tent that he never got.
There are many similar stories. Nasim Begum, 25, lost her eight-month-old son Sakhawat to pneumonia. He died when the temperature dropped to 4 degrees Celsius.
Another mother, 32-year-old Shahana Bibi, has moved to Jalalabad Park from the Neelum Valley due to severe winter. She plans to migrate to Rawalpindi to save the rest of her family from the biting cold.
"Last week, the temperature in the Neelam Valley went into minus and my six-month-old infant Kamran contracted pneumonia. There were no health services available in the Valley. My husband and I started our journey to Muzaffarabad on foot for our son's treatment. But Kamran died on the way," says a grief-stricken Shahana.
"In some high-altitude areas, it is snowing at noon. Snowfall has not started in Muzaffarabad city and Murree. The situation will worsen in January when the entire region will be covered by snow and the temperature will drop to –10 degree Celsius," says an official of the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund.
"More deaths will be inevitable since more than 75 per cent of the victims are living in ordinary tents in the quake-hit areas. The earthquake has already killed more than 100,000 and rendered four million people homeless. Tens of thousands of children could still die when the intensity of the winter increases," the official adds.
The increasing number of winter-related ailments lends credence to UNICEF's fear.
The jihadi outfit Jamatud Dawa has the most well organised relief camps in the quake hit areas. It has confirmed receiving 800 pneumonia patients on a daily basis in Muzaffarabad alone. Most of them are children. The 22 field hospitals in Muzaffarabad are unable to attend to all the patients. The winter is demoralising the doctors and relief workers.
"Pneumonia is not alarming in Azad Kashmir [PoK]. There used to be hundreds of pneumonia cases before the quake," says a fellow of the Leadership for Environment And Development, the largest network of individuals and institutions working on sustainable development in Pakistan.
"Since the people have lost their homes in the earthquake, they are unable to keep themselves warm. They must migrate to warmer places," the LEAD fellow adds.
People want to migrate but this harms the vested interests of the local politicians. They fear the quake-victims will not return – affecting their constituency.
"The politicians have bribed the local prayer leaders who have issued an edict for the people to stay where they are. In Batgram, around 50,000 quake victims have stayed on the Alai mountains," claims Munnoo Bhai, a columnist.
"The edict says that people should not leave their homeland due to the fear of death because a Muslim fears only Allah's wrath. All the Muslims [living on in the upper reaches] are bound to die. Death is certain. Moreover, the clerics are warning people that if they leave their houses, the land mafia will occupy their land," Munno Bhai adds.
"It is not the edict alone that has stopped us from migration. Most of us have our valuables buried under the rubble," says Safeer Ahmad, a schoolteacher in Arja, a village close to Muzaffarabad.
"The wood of our houses is very expensive -- it can be used in reconstruction. We will lose everything if we migrate. Our wood and valuables under the rubble are our only asset now," he adds.
Pakistan has been complaining to the international community that the relief money promised at the Donors Conference on November 19 has not arrived.
"The government of Pakistan has launched an emergency relief operation called 'Winter Race'. It includes provision of transitional shelter of corrugated galvanised iron sheets and some non-food items, particularly to the communities living above 5,000 feet in the quake-affected area," says a senior UN official, on the condition of anonymity.
"This section of population comprises roughly 40,000 households. Army spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan stated on Geo TV on Nov 29 that the army has so far built around 10,000 such shelters. On the other hand, on November 27, the Economic Affairs Division rejected a UN proposal to build 28,000 such shelters for the vulnerable population above the snowline," the UN official adds.
"Reportedly, the EAD secretary stated that the government has made a policy under which no transitional shelters will be built. Only permanent shelters will be encouraged. For this, Rs 25,000 per household has already been distributed and another Rs 150,000 will be given soon. He said the army is recovering the cost of shelters being built by it from the Rs 25,000 given to the affected people. Field commanders denied this when contacted."
It must be noted that even if one assumes that Rs 25,000 is adequate for building shelters, it is impossible to construct anything during the winter in the upper reaches, where the market is not functioning.
This is especially hard on the widows, orphans, elderly and the disabled. The question begging to be asked is: Why is the EAD undermining the UN effort?
Photographs: AFP/Getty Images
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