Quake victims seek shelter

Tens of thousands of tents needed to hold survivors

death toll could go as high as 75,000


MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan -- As rain pelted a muddy soccer field yesterday, Zulfiqar Butt wrestled with a 4-foot length of broken window frame and a wind-whipped tarpaulin, eventually planting the wood scrap in the sodden earth to serve as a tent pole.

As soon as the crude lean-to was erected, Noman Shahid, 12, ducked inside and turned sad brown eyes, a runny nose and chattering teeth in silent appeal to Butt, lord of the newest manor. Perhaps the stranger would offer refuge to his family.

"We have no place to sleep, except in the open," Noman said, shivering in the thin blue shirt of a school uniform that is his only clothing. The boy explained that his father and a brother died in the Oct. 8 earthquake, his mother was injured, and he and his three surviving siblings were too young to compete with the desperate men fighting for the occasional tent tossed from the back of an aid truck.

A week after the devastating 7.6-magnitude temblor that killed at least 38,000 people, tents are all that stand between quake victims dying of exposure or surviving the next week, never mind the looming Himalayan winter.

With proper tents in shockingly short supply in Muzaffarabad, a frantic building boom has beset this pulverized city, with the displaced scavenging corrugated metal sheets from the ubiquitous rubble to put roofs over their heads. Bedclothes, curtains and carpets hang from the crumpled metal, rippling in the wind but keeping most of the rain out.

In one pieced-together shelter, Abdul Rashid lamented the chaos and confusion that afflict the delivery of relief supplies. Aid workers fearful of being mobbed have taken to hurling their offerings from the back of moving flatbeds and pickups, sometimes lobbing the goods over the cinderblock walls of the soccer field, inciting a panicked scramble.

With all aid deliveries from the capital, Islamabad, forced to use the sole road to this Kashmir regional capital, many of the tent builders have pitched their shelters along the narrow, fissured route to be close to the lifeline.

Rubina Afzal peered out from beneath a white tarpaulin attached to a metal bus shelter awning and surrounded with a 3-foot-high fence of woven rattan. She had been there with her husband, brother-in-law and six children since they made the three-day trek down from their destroyed village, more than 30 miles away.

Rebuilding the quake-ravaged area will take years and cost at least $5 billion, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said yesterday. He repeated the relief effort's refrain: Pakistan needs tens of thousands of tents to house its homeless, estimates of which reach 2.5 million.

Once the rain let up around midday, a makeshift airstrip and relief depot suddenly thrummed with action. A half-dozen helicopters buzzed the sky like dragonflies, ferrying tents, food and medicine from Islamabad and moving the injured from mountain villages to a field hospital now functioning at the airstrip.

Rashida Begun had been sitting on the airstrip's fringes for five days, waiting for enough space on a helicopter to return with her elderly aunt and 4-year-old son, Abdullah, to their mountain village more than 10 miles away. They were rescued Tuesday and brought to the airstrip field hospital to set Abdullah's broken leg and the aunt's fractured elbow, treatment dispensed within hours of their arrival.

"My kids are alone," Begun said of the three left behind - and of 10-year-old Arslan, who died in their home's cave-in.

In a tent at the field hospital, Karachi businessman-turned-volunteer Adnan Asdar checked on the progress of surgery needed to deliver a baby from a woman with a crushed pelvis.

"These are procedures after which you'd expect patients to spend several days in the hospital under observation. But we just don't have that luxury," said the harried volunteer with the Karachi-based Citizens Foundation, which has mobilized surgeons, contractors and engineers.

In addition to space needed for post-op recovery, he said, the mission needs thousands of tents to house the legions of homeless before they die of exposure, pneumonia or infectious diseases.

Asdar warned that even the increased fatality figure of 38,000 the army reported yesterday is woefully short of the real toll.

His educated guess on the number killed: 75,000. The Pakistan army general in charge of strategic health issues, Brig. Khalid Hussein, agreed. "The death toll will be much, much higher," he said.

Carol J. Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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