Villagers flee as winter nears
Monday, October 24, 2005
Lacking adequate shelter, villagers fear getting trapped in Pakistan's mountain regions.
PARAS, Pakistan -- The trees along the river are starting to change color, and the leaves are turning yellow and gold. On the high mountains a few miles away, snow is already falling, leaving an ever-increasing coat of white far above the tree line.
Sometime next month, the snow will begin to fall on Paras, a small, quake-devastated town set in a narrow valley at a bend in the Kunhar River. Very quickly, the road here -- if the army has managed to clear it of landslides by then -- will again be closed, the mountain trails will be blocked and places like Paras will be all-but sealed off until spring.
Winter is coming to the mountains of northwestern Pakistan, and some 800,000 earthquake survivors are facing the savagery of the Himalayan winter with no shelter at all.
For many, the choice is obvious. They're fleeing.
"I need to get my family out of here before the winter," said Syed Iftikhar, a 19-year-old university student who rushed home to Paras after the quake, walking for a day along the landslide-blocked road to help his parents and siblings. In the harsh comparisons people use here now, he was lucky: only one of his sisters was killed. But their home was destroyed, along with most of the other buildings in Paras.
"Everything was lost," said Iftikhar, an earnest young man whose father is a truck driver. "What can I say?"
But now, he said, they cannot stay. They've managed to get a tent, and well over a dozen people are squeezed into it. But even the thickest canvas can do little against temperatures that will drop far below freezing once winter sets in, and snows that will pile up well over 6 feet on the terraced cornfields of Paras.
"The winter here is very severe," he said -- no surprise in a 4,000-foot high village where temperatures already hover just above freezing on some autumn nights. "How can you stay?"
With helicopter space limited, and often only available to the injured, he's hoping the two-lane highway is quickly reopened. Otherwise, his family will have to hike out, as he had hiked in.
The magnitude 7.6 quake that struck Oct. 8 is believed to have killed at least 79,000 people, nearly all in northwestern Pakistan, and more than 3 million people had their homes destroyed. Of those, U.N. officials estimate, about 800,000 people still have no shelter at all.
To the man now responsible for Paras, the village at the center of about 50 surrounding mountain hamlets that total about 4,000 people, every person who leaves is a relief.
Capt. Asadulla Jan commands the small military outpost set up here after the quake. The soldiers oversee the helicopter landing zone, operate a medical clinic for minor injuries and distribute whatever aid comes in.
He's blunt about what he wants: Villagers, particularly women and children, should leave soon for "down country," where they can live with relatives or move into the tent communities that have blossomed in sports stadiums, parking lots and empty fields on the edges of Pakistan's larger cities.
"People are dying of the cold," Jan said, and more will die as temperatures drop. Each person that gets onto a helicopter, or makes the 11-mile walk to the nearest town, is "reducing my burden."
He estimates 800 to 900 people will remain in the area through the snows.
In some ways, Paras is already a ghost town. Most houses have been destroyed, the lumber mill is wrecked, the hotels that reflect the town's growing popularity as a summer weekend getaway spot -- the PineView, the Shahper, the GreenLand Guesthouse -- are either heavily damaged or piles of rubble. Most residents have either died, been evacuated because of their injuries or simply left.
But every morning, Paras fills up again, with hundreds of people arriving from surrounding villages to wait patiently for a few handfuls of food, or -- many hope -- a tent.
Tents remain the most sought-after, but the rarest, relief item.
"Our houses have been destroyed. We have nothing for shelter," said Syeed Tasneem Shah, a 31-year-old farmer who has walked to Paras from a nearby village every day for more than a week, hoping to get a tent for his family. Every day he leaves frustrated. "They're just telling us to wait," he said.
Many, though, aren't waiting. Across the region, in hundreds of villages scattered through the quake zone, thousands are leaving.
For many, that means a long walk. But for the lucky few, there are the helicopters now crisscrossing the region. With most of the seriously injured already evacuated or dead, authorities are concentrating on taking out the elderly, women and children.
On a recent morning, a Pakistani army helicopter touched down in the village of Khaghan, a mountainous spot fringed by pine forests north of Paras.
As perhaps 150 men watched, about three dozen women and children, along with a handful of men, were loaded inside. The scene was chaotic: men tried to push in line, police swung at the crowd with bamboo sticks, women stepped nervously toward the helicopter, children wailed.
Moments later, the thunderous roar of its rotors began to blast small sandstorms across the landing zone. And as the helicopter took off, some onboard held their hands in front of them, palms up in the Muslim fashion, praying for safety.