Pakistan's quake victims get trickle of aid

Residents fight over food in Kashmir's shattered capital

most in the mountainous area remain cut off

October 11, 2005|By JAMES RUPERT | JAMES RUPERT,NEWSDAY

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan's army and international relief agencies delivered a first trickle of food, medicine and tents yesterday to some areas shattered by Saturday's earthquake, but most of the devastated region remained isolated by rockslides and broken bridges.

Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of Pakistanis who survived the earthquake are struggling to survive exposure outdoors as nighttime temperatures plunge to near-freezing in mountain valleys.

On the third day of the disaster, its scale remained uncertain. Pakistani officials have estimated a death toll of 20,000 to 40,000, but say that could double when the losses in valleys locked in by landslides become known.

The desperation of survivors, and the inadequacy of aid, was underscored yesterday at the quake's epicenter. In Muzaffarabad, people mobbed Pakistani army trucks that reached town with food supplies and fought over bags of rice, according to TV reports and journalists and relief workers in the city.

Muzaffarabad and nearby Balakot are now half-populated ruins. Their buildings were crushed, the rubble of their walls spilling out to block what used to be narrow streets. Men in Muzaffarabad clambered through the debris into shattered shops in search of food or anything of value. Merchants fought back, throwing rocks, and police fired into the air to stop looters.

Thousands, possibly tens of thousands, were killed in Muzaffarabad, Balakot and surrounding villages, residents say. Again yesterday, people clawed at the rubble with hammers and pickaxes, though now it is to reclaim the buried bodies of loved ones, rather than in hopes of saving them.

Thousands continued to flee, streaming out of the towns in miserable columns of refugees. Often, their way was blocked, on roads only half-cleared of landslides, by carloads of other Pakistanis driving into the towns, desperate to find relatives.

In the ruined cities and along the roads, survivors are camping in the rubble, trying to keep warm by burning furniture.

Help from overseas, and promises of more to come, began streaming into Pakistan yesterday. But only a trickle flowed to the shattered mountain communities of the north.

The World Bank, Western and Arab governments, and United Nations agencies announced millions more in aid for Pakistan.

A U.S. military C-17 cargo plane landed near Islamabad with the first shipment of supplies promised by the Bush administration. Eight military helicopters, borrowed from U.S. forces fighting in neighboring Afghanistan, arrived for the critical task of ferrying supplies to villages as high as two miles up in the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges.

In an unnatural step for a Pakistani government led by an army that has fought three wars with India, the administration of President Pervez Musharraf accepted an offer of emergency help from the Indian government. But it did so only after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh personally called Pakistan's ambassador in New Delhi to restate his offer, made Sunday, to send food, medicine, tents and blankets.

It will be politically awkward for Pakistan's government to hand out relief supplies from the Indians. Much of the earthquake's devastation in Pakistan is in Kashmir, the mountain region over which Pakistan and India have fought.

Pakistan's 58-year-old claim is that Hindu-dominated India oppresses the mainly Muslim people of Kashmir, and that only Pakistan - as the Muslim state carved from British colonial India - offers them a place to find justice and security.

Musharraf turned down India's offer to conduct joint rescue operations in the rugged mountains where their armies face each other across a cease-fire line in Kashmir. Such a joint effort would have meant inviting Indian troops across the line, something unthinkable to officers in the Pakistani military.

In a symbolic reciprocation of India's gesture, Musharraf offered to send help to the Indian-ruled side of Kashmir, where damage also has been great but the death toll is estimated at less than 1,000.

In Pakistan's cities, people have erected tents outside mosques and set up tables on street corners, pleading for donations for earthquake relief. The talk there and on Islamabad's radio stations makes clear that Pakistanis are eager to help as a religious duty - and also as a way of reinforcing Pakistan's claims in Kashmir.

In central Islamabad, volunteers loaded pickup trucks, pulling tarps over piles of blankets, cases of milk and sacks of flour and lentils.

"Just as it is our duty to pray to God and to fast during holy Ramadan, this is our duty to help our brothers and sisters," said Zafar Khan, a university student.

He felt a political duty as well.

"Pakistan has fought for Kashmir before" to oppose the claim of India to rule in that region, Khan said. "Now we must show those people that Pakistan is ready to do anything to take care of them."

James Rupert writes for Newsday.

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