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Desperate survivors beg for tents

October 18, 2005

MUZAFFARABAD, Oct 17: While the destroyed Azad Kashmir capital of Muzaffarabad now seems overflowing with relief goods, chilly highland villages still cry for much needed food and shelter nine days after the killer earthquake struck the region, some of them denied aid by daring looters.

While the stench of death still permeates the town ruined by the Oct 8 quake, traffic jams of relief convoys show what locals called the unprecedented help they were receiving from all parts of Pakistan.

But mismanagement in aid distribution is the common complaint in the area where the civilian administration was crippled by the destruction of most government buildings and deaths of staff and the army and other relief agencies still seemed to lack control of the situation.

People were seen collecting sacks of relief goods such as food rations and clothing from trucks on the roadside at many places when this correspondent had a quick drive through Muzaffarabad and some outlying areas on Sunday evening.

Residents said aid was available also to people living along the main road from Kohala to Muzaffarabad, as well as along those portions of Jhelum valley and Neelum valley roads that had been cleared of landslides caused by the earthquake.

AID LOOTERS: But very little goes to distant villages where no relief supplies have been sent and often some relief managed by individuals is looted by thugs because there are no police or army patrols on link roads going to these villages, where a weekend snowfall on high mountains has signalled the arrival of winter.

A gang of nearly 20 stick-wielding men, some wearing masks over their beards, confronted me on the road when I drove to my village, Kachili, in Muzaffarabad district on Saturday night with a jeep-load of relief goods for the local residents but I managed to pass them unscathed after some verbal exchanges because an armed escort was arranged for me and two ladies accompanying me.

“I am (such and such) and your relative ... and we will not stop your vehicle,” a bearded youth said when I pulled off his mask and asked who he was.

“I am your nephew,” replied another bearded man when his mask was removed. When asked why he was staying on the road so late at night, he said: “I can go back home if you can provide me a tent... (and other material).”

But several others have not been so lucky to escape unharmed in that area and particularly on a 40-km (25 miles) stretch from Chattar Klass on the main Islamabad-Muzaffarabad road to Dhirkot in the adjoining Bagh district.

Groups of local toughs fought each other over the relief booty at Chattar a few days ago before the army arrived to set up a camp there and restore order and some commandeered a few trucks to Danna-Kachili area to stuff their homes, residents said.

A barrister from Bagh district, Raja Mohammad Ishaq, told Dawn that two truckloads of relief goods he sent from Lahore for his native village of Pail in Bagh district were looted in Dhirkot bazaar on Sunday.