Death in the mountains in Pakistan

Published: 18 October 2005 0:00 CET

Till Mayer, Balakot, North West Frontier Province, Pakistan

Another can of air freshener is tossed into a growing pile amid broken bricks and bent steel. The rescue workers get a brief respite from the smell of death, but only for seconds.

Three men battle with hammers and a blowtorch to break through collapsed walls, working like miners to tunnel down. Before 8 October, the site was a solid two-storey house…a family’s home. Now a hand protrudes from the debris and the exhausted, sweat-streaked men will take hours to recover the body.

Urgent needs

Trucks roar by, bringing in more relief supplies. The bright, decorative designs, customary on trucks in Pakistan, look out of place amid the desolation. In the convoy are food, tents and blankets from the Pakistan Red Crescent Society.

A farmer herding two cows at the edge of the street watches the trucks rumble by. “We urgently need tents,” he says.

“Nothing is left from my house. At least I could save my cows but now my family need a roof over their heads. In a few weeks winter will come here to the mountains. I do not know what we should do when the snow falls.”

The Pakistan Red Crescent has already distributed over 2,000 tents, while the International Federation is currently mobilising 25,000 tents and requesting thousands more.

Medical assistance critical

The earthquake has claimed a terrible toll on the city of Balakot, killing an estimated 7,000 people out of a population of 30,000. But the impact stretches far beyond the town limits, up into the mountains where numerous villages have been cut off for days. Across Pakistan, some 40,000 people have died according to authorities and the toll keeps rising.

At the edge of the city, army helicopters whip up a dust storm. The local district hospital was flattened in the earthquake like so many other medical facilities in affected areas. Now the wounded wait on home-made stretchers to be air-lifted. A father tries to calm his eight-year-old daughter. Her eyes are wide and full of fear. She has a bandage on her head but has received only the most basic level of first aid. She is one of many who need to be moved to where proper medical attention can be provided.

Emergency medical assistance is one of the International Federation’s response priorities. A French Red Cross emergency response unit has arrived in Balakot. It is establishing a basic health care facility that will have the capacity to treat 30,000 people for three months. The International Federation has supplies on the ground right now for five such teams. These have been provided by the German Red Cross but more supplies are urgently needed.

100% reliance on aid for six months

Virginie Roiron, a member of the International Federation Field Assessment and Coordination team, watches as the wounded are airlifted. “There are so many things to do,” she explains. “I am also thinking about the earthquake survivors in the mountains who are cut off from the aid delivered in the valley. Even with helicopters, it is sometimes impossible to bring them help.”

The assessment team’s work is vital in informing the ongoing response. Its early conclusions are that the affected people will be totally reliant on emergency assistance for the next six months. There is a considerable risk of many more deaths if the vulnerable do not get sufficient help through the winter.

Shattered lives

Mohammad Nisar, aged 46, sits on the roof of a smashed school. With tired eyes, he watches the comings and goings in the street. Trucks pass by carrying troops to conduct clean-up and clearance work. Local people carry what remains of their possessions and others carry their dead. Balakot’s main road reflects broken dreams and buried hopes.

“Still I can not believe what happened,” says Mohammad. “I do not know if it makes any sense to stay in this destroyed place. My niece was buried alive in this school. It is hard to stand the pain when I think about her.”

An open school-book lies nearby in the dust. ‘This is my house’ is written in English on the open page.

Many in Balakot face a harsh winter with no house and their needs are urgent and ongoing. This is a disaster that will not be overcome for many months.