UN refugee chief concerned about quake survivors

The head of the United Nations refugee agency said on Thursday he is concerned about the fate of more than 40 000 highland quake survivors expected to flee their mountain villages as the frigid Himalayan winter hits, while a Nato official said troops are racing against time to get aid to the most vulnerable.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres urged local officials and the international aid community to prepare urgently for the arrival of thousands of people fleeing harsh conditions and said the world must ensure that villagers who choose to remain in the ruins of their shattered homes get the help they need to survive the next few months.

“We are doing our best to ensure that everybody, even in the most remote locations, gets enough support to face the winter and to get through the winter without tragedy,” he said.

Guterres met Sikander Hayat, the top official in Pakistani-held Kashmir, and then flew over and through the quake zone.

“It is absolutely awful,” he said, looking out from a hillside over the rubble-strewn remains of the town of Balakot, which was largely flattened by the 7,6-magnitude quake. “I have no words to describe my feelings. I don’t ever remember seeing a disaster of these proportions.”

Guterres visited a refugee camp near the north-western city of Balakot.
As he asked survivors about their concerns, one man said he just wants to rebuild his home before winter sets in.

Hayat said the government expects more than 40 000 people from towns and villages above 1 500m to descend to the regional capital, Muzaffarabad, once the weather worsens.

Officials say they are hastily building more camps to accommodate them.

Momentum

The refugee chief urged the international community to keep up the momentum in recovery efforts, noting that Pakistan has hosted refugees from war and persecution in neighbouring Afghanistan for decades and must not be abandoned in its hour of need.

“It’s more than a humanitarian operation. It is a political and moral duty to be here and be totally engaged,” he said. “Pakistan has been the most generous host of refugees. It is time for the international community to pay back ... that means rebuilding their lives. It is not only rebuilding the houses, the schools and the roads. It is rebuilding the lives of the people that we are committed to.”

The October 8 quake killed an estimated 86 000 people and destroyed the homes of more than three million in north-western Pakistan and its part of Kashmir. A further 1 350 died in Indian-held Kashmir.

Many of the homeless people now live in tents provided by the UN and other relief agencies as the frigid winter starts in the Himalayan foothills.

‘A race in all senses of the word’

Air Commander Andrew Walton, head of Nato’s relief team in Pakistan, said providing food and medicine to people in high mountain villages is “a race in all senses of the word” before winter snow sets in and cuts off communication links.

He told a news conference in Islamabad that an estimated 35 000 people at high altitudes are at risk from extreme cold in Bagh, one of the worst-hit districts in Pakistan’s part of Kashmir where Nato troops are operating.

Nato troops have provided shelter to about 29 000, and efforts are under way to get shelters for the remaining 6 000, Walton said.

In Muzaffarabad, a Pakistan army spokesperson sounded a positive note, saying military helicopters have stocked outlying regions with enough food, blankets and other necessary items to last through the winter, when flights likely will be hampered by bad weather.

“We are all set for the winter,” Major Farooq Nasir said. “We have stocked tonnes of food, thousands of blankets and other necessary items, which will be sufficient until February.”—Sapa-AP

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