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Pakistan: Guarding Life's Fortune in the Rubble
By Solveig Olafsdottir, Balakot, Pakistan

Balakot, Pakistan, November 11, 2019—Little remains of the buzzing town of Balakot—a resort well known to hikers and tourists, situated at the bottom of the Kaghan Valley and surrounded by the scenic mountains of the Hindu Kush.

Balakot and its neighbouring villages were almost completely destroyed in the earthquake on 8 October. It is estimated that almost 80 per cent of its population of 35,000 were killed. Most villages in the mountains above were also totally demolished.

At the best of times, the communities around the valley live in a harsh environment in tough mountainous terrain. They are used to coping in difficult conditions, but they need more than just resilience to survive now and in the long term.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is striving to provide them with the means to carry on through winter. With temperatures plummeting to -15° Celsius in the highest settlements as early as November, the urgency of the task is even greater.

"Make no mistake. This is one of the most complex relief operations ever. Our operation has been able to overcome many of the problems caused by bad weather, landslides, aftershocks and generally difficult terrain, but these problems will worsen with the onset of winter," said Markku Niskala, Secretary General of the International Federation after having visited the quake affected area in Pakistan. "I am appealing to individuals and governments around the world to support us in this work."

The operation faces a serious challenge. The International Federation appealed for CHF 152 million USD to assist to assist some 570,000 survivors, but less than half this amount has been secured.

Nonetheless, Red Cross Red Crescent relief distribution has continued to gain momentum despite the harsh conditions. Getting tents, blankets and tarpaulins out to the survivors has called for new measures.

The International Federation has started airlifting special relief teams by helicopter to isolated villages, and small jeeps, mules and sometimes people are used to carry relief items up the mountains to remote villages.

"These jeeps have had to make up to 30 trips per day up the mountain, so that we could reach our target of distributing up to 250 tents and tarpaulins and from each distribution points," says Raoul Garganera, team leader for the Regional Disaster Response Teams (RDRT) from Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies from South and South East Asia that have been instrumental in carrying out the relief efforts. "Once our network was up and running, we have been reaching some 30,000 people per week."

Siddique Muhammad waited for two weeks while roads were cleared and made accessible for Red Cross Red Crescent aid to be brought up to his isolated village of Hangrai, high up in the Kaghan Valley.

It has been a long wait. His wife and four sons have only had tarpaulins and plastic sheeting to shield them from the cold. His home was completely destroyed—as were all other houses in Hangrai. Some 150 people were killed in this small community of only a few thousand inhabitants.

"Everything was destroyed in a single second," Siddique says when asked about the earthquake. "Throughout the day you could hear people crying. Then the rain fell in the night. It was awful."

After struggling to carry the tent from the Red Cross Red Crescent distribution point in Jabra up the steep mountain slopes to where his house used to stand, Siddique does not waste any time. With assistance from friends and family, he puts it up besides the ruins of his home. Under the rubble lie all his belongings, and he wants to salvage as much as possible while the weather allows. The future is still uncertain.

"If weather permits, we will stay up here. If it gets too cold, we will have to shift down to the valley—to Balakot or surrounding towns," he explains. What he wants most of all is to stay close to where his life’s fortune lies buried.

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