Lefteris Pitarakis / Ap
Pakistani soldiers lead mules carrying aid for people affected by the Oct. 8 earthquake, as they approach the village of Bisuti in the Himalayan Mountains on Monday.
updated 10/17/2005 8:46:13 PM ET 2005-10-18T00:46:13

A mule train laden with sacks of food plodded into this village Monday, and a slight smile softened Mohammed Mushtaq’s gaunt face.

It was the first outside help in the nine days since a huge earthquake sheared away chunks of the mountain face and blocked the only road to this hamlet tucked 9,000 feet up in the Himalayas.

State-of-the-art helicopters need clear skies to fly in the mountains, and heavy rains since the Oct. 8 quake have hampered their use. But mules can get around in virtually any weather, so Pakistan’s army is relying on them to pack in desperately needed supplies.

The nearest town with food and other relief goods is Bagh, a rugged descent of nearly 5,000 feet. The rocky road winds along unforgiving terrain, with mountainside towering on one side and a sheer drop on the other.

It is a hard trek for most people, and particularly so for 37-year-old Mushtaq, whose foot is turned almost completely inward from childhood polio, forcing him to hobble about with a cane.

The convoy of mules led by Pakistani troops took three hours to climb to Bisuti. When they arrived, it was chaos as Mushtaq and other villagers crowded around.

Soldiers pleaded with people to be orderly, getting them to form lines. The soldiers ripped open sacks holding sugar, flour, cooking oil, tea and lentils. One by one, they distributed the supplies until nothing was left except biscuits.

Important resource
The weather problems and Pakistan’s shortage of helicopters have made mules a key resource in the rugged mountains of Pakistani Kashmir, which suffered the worst damage during the earthquake. Many villages remained cut off as crews struggled to clear blocked roads.

“We had to decide the best way to reach as many people and places as we could,” said Capt. Noor-ul Amin, who accompanied the Bisuti mule train, part of a Pakistani army mule regiment that has 200 of the animals in Bagh.

The World Food Program also has begun using packhorses and mules to carry emergency rations. But the U.N. agency has been frustrated by the time-consuming efforts needed to hire the animals.

“We are also having to negotiate directly with donkey and mule owners, to persuade them to transport supplies to villages which have had no food since the quake. All this is taking up precious time,” Michael Jones, emergency coordinator for WFP’s relief operation, said in a statement.

Echoing the region’s devastation, Bisuti appeared to have no buildings undamaged. Tin roofs built on a slant to prevent a buildup of snow over the winter sagged to one side. Some houses collapsed when the quake snapped wooden beams.

Mushtaq pointed to a nearby hill. “My house is there. It is badly damaged. All the houses here are damaged. No one escaped.” He said one of his three children died when their house fell in.

Detritus of wrecked homes
The road up to Bisuti is a string of wrecked homes. Everywhere, people asked the soldiers with the mule train for tents, to provide shelter as winter approaches.

Mir Hussain, 70, said he had used what little plastic sheeting he had to cover the new graves of his four grandchildren, a sister-in-law and a niece, who died during the quake. He feared weekend downpours would wash the bodies away if the graves weren’t covered.

He said the remaining members of the family are living outside, suffering in the cold and wet.

“Please, I need a tent,” Hussain told the soldiers. “I can’t use this plastic for me. I need it for the graves. I can’t let them be washed away. I can’t.”

The army mules carried only food, though, and the soldiers moved on to Bisuti.

Clothes lay all along the roadside, discarded by villagers who didn’t need them.

“I distributed these clothes, but what people really need — and they don’t have — is tents,” said Amin, the army captain.

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