“Where is the help? Where are the authorities? We have nothing. We are living under the open sky, alone,” cried Arshad Nawaz, whose 10-year-old niece, Sitra, was killed in this weekend’s devastating temblor.
Nearly three days after the earth convulsed beneath a girls’ school, residents of the Kashmir town of Garhi Habibullah were still trying to reach children buried under the rubble with no rescue dogs, sound sensors or soldiers.
Those affected by Saturday’s earthquake have expressed growing frustration that not enough is being done to help them.
“We’ve been waiting since this happened. We’ve received nothing. Our house is gone. Everything is gone and I have no work. I am broken,” said Mohammed Nasir in nearby Muzaffarabad, three days of stubble on his face, and a sign in his hand pleading for help.
But international relief officials say things are improving and criticism of the overwhelmed Pakistani government is premature.
Help on the way, Pakistani president says
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf also defended his government’s efforts. He had appealed for international help, particularly cargo helicopters to reach remote areas cut off by landslides.
“We are doing whatever is humanly possible,” Musharraf said. “There should not be any blame game. We are trying to reach all those areas where people need our help.”
Planeloads of aid arrived Monday from Britain, Japan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
Eight U.S. military helicopters also were diverted from the war in neighboring Afghanistan to join the relief effort, bringing with them supplies, tarpaulins, high-tech cameras for finding buried survivors and other equipment.
Until Sunday, not a single road into the Pakistani-controlled side of the mountainous territory of Kashmir was passable, meaning no aid reached the hundreds of thousands of homeless until Monday, said Andrew MacLeod, Humanitarian Affairs officer with the U.N. Coordination and Assessment Team.
“In situations like this, aid never gets through quickly enough, but it is getting through as quickly as possible,” he said.
MacLeod said the international community had learned a valuable lesson from recent disasters like Hurricane Katrina and last year’s Asian tsunami. “You need to coordinate. There’s no point running off and doing everything on your own,” he said.
Anne Veneman, executive director of UNICEF, said her teams were working around the clock and that aid was finally getting through.
First shipments reaching most areas
“We have the first shipments that have now reached the most affected areas. We know they are reaching the children and the people, the families who need them,” she said.
The Pakistani government has called for and accepted aid from every corner of the earth, even nuclear rival India, which also was hit by the quake. Some hailed the thaw between the two sides as a historic opportunity to work toward lasting peace in the region.
But such optimism offered little comfort to those left homeless, widowed and orphaned.
Khursheed Kiyani, who has been living outside in Muzaffarabad since the quake hit, expressed anger at the relief effort.
“It is like living in hell here. The Chinese, the French — everyone is supposed to be helping us, but we don’t see any of it,” he said. “We see the helicopters but we don’t see any food. Where is the relief effort?”
Relief workers pouring in
Musharraf’s government, which usually bans foreigners from setting foot in Kashmir without permission, has greatly relaxed the rules to allow a flood of international relief workers into the area.
The military has been coordinating the relief effort, along with non-governmental organizations and the international community. The government has provided tents, blankets, food and medical supplies, most of which were airdropped by military helicopters.
Government and army units also have set up makeshift hospitals and shelters for the injured and homeless.
Several neighborhood groups in the town of Srinagar on the Indian side of the disputed territory collected money, warm clothes and blankets for the survivors and were receiving donations from residents.
‘I haven’t seen any help’
In Garhi Habibullah, Nawaz’s fingers blistered from the clawing at the earth that entombed his young niece. His pale yellow shalwar kameez, a traditional loose-fitting outfit, was stained with sweat.
“I don’t have any other clothes. Everything else was buried when my home collapsed. I haven’t seen any help,” Nawaz said, clinging to a small plastic bag of flour. “This is to feed a family of 12, my brother’s children, mine and my sister’s.”
On a rickety old wooden table more than a dozen tiny backpacks were stacked high. Tucked by its side was a small boy’s bag with the giant Nike symbol and emblazoned with the words “Just Do It” barely visible beneath the gray cement dust.
Creeping slowly, hesitantly toward the mound were two girls who appeared to be about 15 and 16 years old. Faisa and her sister Sadia Aurungzeb were at school when the earthquake hit and barely escaped.
Sadia wrapped her yellow and red shawl close around her shoulders. “It all happened so fast. We were waiting for the teacher,” Sadia said. “Suddenly everything started to shake. we all screamed and quickly we began to recite the Quran. I was so scared. I just kept repeating every prayer I could remember. I grabbed my friend’s hand and we ran out.”
Waiting for U.S. helicopters
The Pakistan military says it is still waiting for the helicopters from the United States to get to the quake zone.
“We were expecting the helicopters today. Maybe they will come tomorrow,” said Brig. Gen. Ashraf Tabbassam, at Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-held Kashmir.
“With a disaster of this magnitude it takes some times to reach out to people,” said Tabbassam. He said the military has conducted a staggering number of helicopter sorties trying to reach the hardest-hit regions that are tucked away in the Himalayan foothills and reachable only by air.
“We have never had to tackle anything of this size before. And the world has made a lot of promises.”
At the city limits of Muzaffarabad Monday, several families stood on the road that snaked down the mountain holding signs they had relatives write in English. One said simply in large blue letters: “HELP.” Another asked: “Who will help us?”