Saving Kashmir's quake victims: Winter won't clock off

WHEN the first TV news images came through of the earthquake in Pakistan, the world clocked off. Desperate appeals from the UN yielded a fifth of what was needed. Anti-Muslim sentiment in the West may be one element: but there is also a feeling of helplessness faced with natural disasters, and of overload: a hurricane, a flood, a tsunami and now another earthquake.

By Maggie O'kane

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Published: Mon 14 Nov 2005, 9:39 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 6:51 PM

I remember my clocking-out moment well. It was a news bulletin on the day after the earthquake. In a mountain village, parents were gathered around a collapsed school. They could hear the cries of their children, buried alive. There can, I imagine, be no greater agony for a parent than such a sound. No amount of broken, bloodied fingers, as their parents tore at the bricks with bare hands, could save them. Their voices would grow fainter and fainter, and then silence. The logistics of nature and the mountain were unresolvable in the 48 hours it would take the children to die.

I clocked out. Didn't read another word about the earthquake and ignored television pictures. No, more than that, I left the room when they came on. Then two weeks ago, on the day that the UN announced that the response to the appeal had been a disaster, a familiar face appeared on the TV.

Larry Hollingsworth, of the UNHCR, has spent his life buried in human tragedy. In Bosnia he led convoys of refugees out of siege cities, bartering cheerily with the captors as he went. He didn't panic. But now he was pleading, begging, beseeching. The message: in weeks the snows come and "we will be digging the bodies of children from the mountainside". Their deaths, this time, would have nothing to do with a lack of lifting equipment but everything to do with weary indifference.

Next morning I pulled my two girls towards me, and imagined what it might be like to wrap my body around my children as they died from cold. I rang up Blacks, the outdoors people, and asked the price of a winterised tent big enough for a family to stay alive in: £300. A whip-round got enough for that one symbolic tent. Seemed useless in face of the needs of hundreds of thousands of people. But then what will that mother on the mountain think when she crawls into it with her children. Since then the UN has shifted from tents (not warm enough) to corrugated-iron shelters.

This is a tragedy on such a scale that, of course, it has to be grasped by governments. The British and the Americans have, as Hilary Benn keeps reminding us, given more money than anyone else. But surely Britain could have found more than three Chinook helicopters. President Musharraf says Pakistan's Muslims don't count in the same way as westerners caught in the tsunami. He's right. But the big picture is that in a few weeks the mountains will be covered in snow. This is a tragedy that, for once, can be averted by money.

Some 350,000 people need help to stay alive this winter. More than half will abandon the mountains for army camps at lower levels — where the BBC has just reported outbreaks of cholera and diphtheria. In the mountains, they have food, they have cattle — but their homes can't be rebuilt quickly enough to keep out the winter. They need corrugated iron sheets and plastics to survive. The first dustings of snow have already hit the villages at 6,000ft. We have two weeks. Just enough time — maybe — to clock back in.

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