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Pakistan

From the field - Muzaffarabad

From a distance, Muzaffarabad looks like an enticing destination, surrounded by the spectacular Kashmir Mountains. But even before you reach the city on the winding road from Islamabad, you know the impression will be wrong. For every kilometre brings increasing evidence of the tragic events of October 8: large boulders pushed to the side so that vehicles can pass; the first collapsed house; a small tent encampment on one of the rare pieces of flat ground; stretches of route with hastily dug detours because the original road has disappeared.

Muzaffarabad : Multi-storey buildings have been concertinaed to little more than the height of a single floor.
Muzaffarabad : Multi-storey buildings have been concertinaed to little more than the height of a single floor.
Photo : EC/ECHO/Nick Bridger

To enter Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, you pass through a road tunnel through the mountain about fifty metres long. There used to be two tunnels, one in each direction. The outer one has been swept away so incoming and departing vehicles have to alternate, controlled by traffic police at each end.

On the other side, the terrifying power of the earthquake is starkly revealed. Multi-storey buildings that have concertinaed to little more than the height of a single floor; individual homes where the walls have crumbled but the roof lies intact at near ground level; garden walls distorted into grotesque shape. And amongst all this, the survivors. Some sit at the doors of their tents, still dulled by the horror, but the town is also bustling with activity - because life has to go on. There are traders selling food where their shops have survived, men carrying building materials to make shelters for their families before the winter arrives. The main roads are busy with the colourfully decorated lorries so characteristic of this part of the world. They come every day in their hundreds delivering relief supplies, and often returning with evacuees. Then there are all the military, UN and NGO vehicles.

The ECHO 'office' is situated at one end of a United Nation's tent in the base they have set up on a school sports pitch. Everything here is under canvas and you can see why. Although Muzaffarabad escaped the total destruction visited upon towns and villages a little further north, the buildings that stayed standing are nearly all badly damaged. And after dozens of powerful aftershocks, few people are keen at present to have a real roof over their heads - especially at night time.

'A roof over their heads' - even if only a canvas one - is the main challenge in this crisis as winter approaches. Aid agencies are working flat out to deliver tents (and other basic supplies) to those who are most in need. Oxfam, funded by the Commission under the primary emergency decision announced on the day after the earthquake, are making daily deliveries to outlying villages. The worry is that there may not be enough tents in the world to meet the enormous needs in these stricken valleys.

Muzaffarabad : Aid agencies are working flat out to deliver tents (and other basic supplies) to those who are most in need.
Muzaffarabad : Aid agencies are working flat out to deliver tents (and other basic supplies) to those who are most in need.
Photo : EC/ECHO/Nick Bridger

Medical aid is the other initial priority. The Finnish and Norwegian Red Cross, also supported by the EU, have set up an impressive field hospital in the city. It is replacing the two main hospitals, both destroyed. The number of patients awaiting treatment for wounds sustained during the earthquake is beginning to go down but injured people still arrive daily by helicopter from remote communities.

At the helipad - also a converted sports field - the helicopters take off and land all day, delivering relief supplies to areas cut off by road and bringing the seriously injured to hospital. The Commission is also supporting this operation with funding for the Aga Khan Foundation (running four helicopters) and others in the pipeline.

The Commission has just announced proposals to provide substantial new funds for humanitarian aid and rehabilitation in this region.

The money is vital, but so too is the human commitment.

The Commission's humanitarian aid experts (based in Balakot and Islamabad as well as Muzaffarabad) have been working fourteen hour days, seven days a week - often in difficult and uncomfortable conditions - since they arrived. So have their UN, Red Cross/Crescent and NGO colleagues in the partner agencies.

They are the human embodiment of European - and global - solidarity with the victims of this terrible tragedy.

Simon Horner
Information & Communication Unit