For four nights, the people of this ruined mountain village have slept in the cold, surrounded by hundreds of freshly dug graves and the cries of people injured in the weekend earthquake. There is no medicine here, little food and, until very recently, no help.
Every day, the villagers have flown a red flag beside the ruins of the boys’ primary school, signaling disaster. They waved frantically as military relief helicopters shuttled past without stopping.
When assistance finally came Wednesday, four days after the quake hit, it was in the form of a half-dozen ill-equipped Pakistani army soldiers with some crackers to hand out. They immediately warned the villagers their unit had to leave before nightfall: They hadn’t brought any flashlights.
This is the story of Sanger, one forgotten village hidden 1,000 feet above the two-lane highway that slices through the beautiful, steep mountain terrain of the Kaghan Valley. With that highway now cut off about four miles away by landslides, Sanger, and many villages beyond it, have been left to struggle almost completely on their own.
‘We are so hungry’
“We have no tents, no food. For five days we’ve had nothing. We are so hungry,” said Mir Afzal, a Sanger resident making the three-hour trek Wednesday morning to Balakot, a crowded little town nearly leveled by the quake — and suddenly the focus of relief efforts. Now, it has become the hoped-for source of help for thousands of people from remote villages trying to reach it.
Hundreds of people have left Sanger, a village of laborers, farmers and small traders, for Balakot since Saturday’s quake. Some have become refugees. Others, like Afzal and the group he was hiking with, have become reluctant rescuers.
“We’re going to get supplies there and go back to Sanger,” said Afzal. “No one else has come to help us.”
Around him, the road was crowded with people. Some were relatives from elsewhere hiking into the hills in search of their families. Many more were villagers who had heard the rumors of help in Balakot and were heading in that direction.
Because of landslides, three large sections of the highway have been blocked between Balakot and the trails leading up the mountain to Sanger.
But the landslides can be traversed on foot or bypassed on trails. While trucks won’t be able to make it through with supplies until the road is cleared, the people of this region, long used to steep mountain trails, can easily make the hike. Properly organized, just about anything could be carried in.
On Wednesday, many made the journey out under heavy loads.
Dozens of groups of men carried beds made of wood and twine. On them were the injured: children, grandmothers, men who had survived the quake but were unable to walk to help. At least once, the highway was witness to a roadside funeral, after an injured woman died during the trek. Her carriers put the bed to the side of the road, pulled a blanket over her head and, along with more than a dozen passers-by, offered their prayers.
Death toll unknown
Sanger, a collection of tiny hamlets totaling perhaps 5,000 people spread across a few miles of mountainside, had buried many of its dead by Wednesday, laying eight or nine bodies into single graves.
The death toll, though, remains a mystery. In the main hamlet, the boys’ primary school collapsed, killing at least 150 students. At least 50 girls died when their school also collapsed. Nearly every other building was damaged badly and many had collapsed to the point that walking trails now pass over their roofs.
Most people here believe at least half the villagers died in the quake and about half the survivors have fled.
Many of those who remain have the glazed expressions of soldiers returning from combat, a jarring contrast to the spectacular region where the village sits, with pine-forested mountains dropping steeply to the Kunhar River and idyllic scenes of shepherds watching flocks by narrow terraced cornfields.
“Maybe these people will come back in a year. I don’t know,” said Amjad Hussain, the village’s welfare officer — the closest thing it has to a doctor — speaking of those who left. Normally, Hussain dispenses drugs and advice from a small building, now destroyed. In his hands was one of the few things that remained: a small bottle of disinfectant. He held it tightly, clearly disturbed that he couldn’t offer his neighbors anything else.
“This is all I have,” said Hussain, 34, who lost two sisters in the quake.
The soldiers, for their part, appeared confused by the lukewarm reception they received. After an initial burst of hope with the troops’ appearance, most villagers retreated to their now-daily tasks: digging out houses, searching for the dead, tending to their injuries. Few watched as soldiers briefly poked through the boys school, where students’ black berets and dirty knapsacks are now piled to the side.
“It’s difficult for rescue teams to arrive,” said their commander, Capt. Zulfiqar Khan, a polite, quiet-spoken man, explaining the four-day absence of any help from the military — by far the largest recipient in Pakistan’s budget.
‘It was like a bomb’
Twelve-year-old Mohammed Sohaib was in writing class when the quake hit.
“I felt these strange jolts, and then it was like a bomb,” he said. “Then the roof collapsed on my leg.” His injury wasn’t too bad — a large leg scrape and a bruised face. But his house was destroyed, and he’s tired of living in a hut fashioned from lashed-together cornstalks.
There is one consolation, he said.
“At least I’m not sleeping in the open.”