Rainstorms add to misery in Pakistan

Huddling under bits of plastic, survivors in quake-hit Muzaffarabad faced fresh heartbreak on Tuesday as torrential rain halted aid efforts hours after they got into gear.

Helicopters were forced to stop their mercy flights bringing aid to the Pakistani Kashmir capital and evacuating the worst of the injured from Saturday’s 7,6-magnitude quake to hospitals in Islamabad, officials said.

Soldiers temporarily gave up the grim task of gathering corpses from the streets, while private relief groups halted the distribution of food, blankets, clothing and water to victims of the devastation.

Earlier on Tuesday international rescue teams took advantage of reopened road links and arrived with truckloads of equipment to help in the search for those still trapped under rubble three days after the temblor jolted large swathes of Pakistan and northern India.

US Chinook helicopters had been landing at regular intervals at the University Stadium in the centre of the rubble-reduced capital of Pakistan’s sector of divided Kashmir—near to the epicentre of Saturday’s quake.

At what is left of Shaukat Line army base, they brought supplies—mainly wheat but also lentils, biscuits, cooking oil, sugar and tents.

The stadium, not far from the flattened Combined Military Hospital, also served as a makeshift medical centre with doctors treating the wounded in tents and on the stadium seating, including one doctor who was sewing back a flap of skin that had been peeled from a young girl’s head in the quake.

UN officials said relief operations in the city of 500 000 had yet to begin officially, although many private organisations from throughout Pakistan were sending in truckloads of items such as water, mattresses, tents and medical supplies which were being distributed on the roadside.

“You could say this is day one of the operation—now that the roads are open we can set up proper systems,” said an official of the UN’s Onsite Operations Coordinating Centre (OSOCC), which has set up shop at the Neelum stadium here, along with a dozen relief teams, including those from the Russian Federation, Turkey and Britain.

Many residents were on Tuesday still walking through the streets in a state of disbelief, battling to comprehend the enormity of the disaster that reduced their familiar tea stalls, carpet shops, trading stores and gathering places to mounds of bricks, twisted metal and slabs of concrete.

“I don’t recognise Muzaffarabad any more,” said 19-year-old student Daniel Shahaad. “It’s as if I woke up and found myself in a totally new place.”

Like most other residents—except for those on the lower end of town away from the mountains who escaped more lightly—his home has been destroyed and he and his family are living out in the open.

“We were prosperous traders, now we are street people—like those who you see in big cities living on the streets,” he said.

Since the quake brought death and tragedy to the once picturesque city, he has only eaten some biscuits and drunk some milk, Shahaad said, adding that those who managed to retrieve some supplies from their houses were sharing them with neighbours and friends.

Many people were still digging through the rubble on Tuesday in search of the bodies of family members—few believe anyone is still alive under the hills of horror that were once their homes.

In a grim reminder of the scale of the destruction, bodies lined the streets wrapped in blankets and buzzing with flies as soldiers wearing face masks and gloves started the noxious task of gathering them for burial.

In the alleys of the main Medina market, once the bustling centre of the city but now a stomach-heaving mass of rotting food, decaying meat and ruined shops and stalls, the soldiers stumbled over bricks and became entangled in broken cables as they carried the bodies on charpoys, normally used as small beds.

Before the soldiers lifted a makeshift stretcher holding the body of 20-year-old Raja Naveed Afzal to their shoulders, his uncle, Shah Zamman, chanted verses from the Koran, shed some tears and then bade the boy farewell.

Traders at the market, meanwhile, complained that their shops had been looted by “outsiders”—non-Kashmiris—who had taken advantage of the turmoil to run off with whatever goods survived the earthquake.

“I ran a communications shop,” said Shaheen Iqbal. “All the mobiles that were not damaged were stolen.
I am left with nothing.”