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Pakistan Cuts Through Mountain Roads To Reach Quake Survivors

Mushtaq Hussain Awan (L), chief engineer for the Muzaffarabad Highways Department offers prayers with a colleague over the death of a villager's son, 18 October 2005, at his daughter's quake-damaged home along the road to Malsi, east of Muzaffarabed in the Jhelum Valley in Pakistan Kashmir. Ten days after the massive 08 October 7.6 magnitude earthquake devasted this mountainous region of South Asia, more than three million people remain homeless and in urgent need of shelter, food and medical supplies hampered by damaged roads and landslides. AFP photo by Frederic J. Brown.

Sanghar, Pakistan (AFP) Oct 18, 2005
The Pakistani army tore through landslides Tuesday to reopen earthquake-ravaged roads to remote towns and villages in the north and in Kashmir, which have been cut off from supplies by land for 10 days.

Army bulldozers have been trudging meter by meter through the rocks and mud to reach isolated mountain areas which have been relying on helicopter relief since the massive October 8 earthquake.

On Tuesday, the earth-moving crew finally reached Sanghar, a mountain town some six kilometers (four miles) north of Balakot, the valley town in North West Frontier Province reduced to a sea of tents.

But there are more villages badly hit by the quake stretching some 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Balakot into the mountains to the north.

The reopening of the road will provide a crucial new conduit of aid into the mountains. Previously only two convoys of mules by the Pakistani army were able to bring help to Sanghar.

Hundreds of villagers have been making the treacherous journey on foot down to Balakot in search of urgently needed aid, climbing over piles of rubble on a road where no cars could pass.

"I got one bag of rice so I can feed eight people," Ghulam Nabi, an old bearded man in a red and white turban, said as he trekked back up the mountains from Balakot.

It was the second major road to be cleared in two days. On Monday, bulldozers broke through a huge landslide near the small town of Ghari Dupatta to reopen the road from the Pakistani Kashmir capital Muzaffarabad.

They opened the road for another few kilometres (miles) Tuesday to the village of Sahara, around 30 kilometres (19 miles) from Muzaffarabad.

The road was lined with people from stricken villages looking for food, tents and information about relatives, and the Pakistani army set up a major aid distribution point at Malsi, near Sahara.

"This is the first time I have seen any assistance being given out to people since the quake. People in my village are living under plastic sheets," said Safeer, who walked to the relief centre for five hours from a village called Kumar Bandi. He lost his aunt and three nephews in the disaster.

Helicopters were also roaring through the sky at a breakneck pace Tuesday for the second straight day after a weekend of rain that grounded flights, leaving an untold number of stranded survivors to die.

The deputy commissioner of Muzaffarabad, Liaquat Hussain, said the roads were key to sustaining the relief operation after the quake. The Pakistani government says at least 41,000 people died in the disaster.

"The biggest hurdle is road communication is not available. Even the bridges are gone, so it's a huge effort that is required to establish the road link," Hussain said.

The operation is painstakingly slow. On the road to Sanghar, two excavators are in charge of pushing out the mud and rocks which often can only be loosened by planting explosives.

By Monday morning, the army team had only cleared one kilometer (half a mile) of the route to Sanghar as the initial conditions were "extremely difficult," said soldier Ali Hassan.

The army set off dynamite charges for two controlled explosions Sunday evening and two more Monday morning to pave the way.

"We have to be very careful as the ground is very unstable. The earth is continuing to shake and it rained a lot over two days which led to even more landslides," Hassan said.

The slow process has sparked pessimism in many of the survivors.

As villagers brought their wounded by foot down from the mountains, one boy was hiking up with his brother by his side and a big bag of supplies. He said he was walking nine hours to reach his distant hamlet.

"I don't think the road will ever reopen. We have to keep walking," he said.

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Quake-Hit Pakistan Races Against Winter
Ghari Dupatta, Pakistan (AFP) Oct 18, 2005
The UN warned Tuesday time was running out for Pakistan's quake survivors, with half a million yet to receive help and not enough tents in the world to keep them warm this winter.

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