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By Marcus Stern
Copley News Service

BALAKOT, Pakistan -- Bibi Nargus lost her husband, home and eldest son in the Oct. 8 earthquake that rocked northern Pakistan two months ago. Today, she and her six surviving children sleep in a tent, sharing two blankets as the severe winter weather approaches.

They are residents of the Balakot neighborhood of Belapudna, 122 families that have set up tents next to their collapsed houses and apartment buildings in the commercial heart of Balakot. Next to their tents, they have buried their dead, a total of 110.

They are like hundreds of thousands of other tent-dwellers in the quake- affected areas of Azad Kashmir and Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province. They are bracing for a cold winter they might not survive.

During the day, they wash their clothes and dishes in a nearby stream. At night, when the temperatures plummet to below freezing, they shiver inside their tents.

"The children wake up and cry at night because of the cold," Nargus said. "The worst is in the early morning when dew seeps into the tent and makes us wet and even colder."

Overlooking Balakot, a heavily snow-covered mountain serves as a reminder that before the month is out, dangerously cold weather and snow will arrive. At 3,000 feet, Balakot is in the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains. Wet snow already has fallen on villages at higher elevations, collapsing tents.

People here concede that some will not survive to see the spring. Some deaths will come quickly in the form of hypothermia. Others will occur slowly. It will start almost imperceptibly, perhaps with a gentle cough. Colds and flu lead to pneumonia in these conditions and pneumonia frequently results in death. The very young and very old are most at risk.

"When the earthquake happened, some people died and some people lived. There was nothing we could do," said Muhammad Jan, 48, who lost his daughter in the quake. "And when the snow comes, some will die and some will live. There is nothing we can do about that either."
After the quake, the Pakistani army and relief organizations began a mad rush to get shelter to people in the affected areas. An estimated 3 million were displaced. The early deliveries were tarps because they could fit more tarps on a helicopter at one time than the much heavier tents. Then they distributed the tents.

Now they are struggling to get corrugated tin sheets, lumber and nails to elevations above 5,000 feet where the prospects of hypothermia are highest. The next priority will be lower-lying places like Balakot, where there is little expectation that they will get tin shelters, called sheet houses because they are made from the sheets of tin.

The advantage of the sheet houses is that they stand up under the weight of snow and you can install a wood-burning stove for heat. There is no way to heat tents because they are highly flammable. Already, tent fires have killed and injured quake survivors and relief workers alike.

"The tents are okay for the summer, but they are not enough for the winter," said Mustaq Khan, a resident of the Belapudna tent village. Not even the relief agencies have enough money to build sheet houses for everybody."

The typical tent has no floor. Generally, a sheet of plastic has been placed on the ground. One blanket is placed over the sheet and the family sleeps in their clothes beneath the second blanket. Whatever belongings they might have also are stored in the tent.

Mustaq is wearing a coat provided by an Islamic charity called Al Mustafa. The same group has handed out coats throughout Belapudna. It also delivers tea, milk and buns to the camp in the morning and rice or lentils twice later in the day.

We are surviving only through this aid," said Zahd Khan, 29, who was still on crutches and in a walking cast after his leg had been fractured during the quake. His mud house had collapsed on him. His father and brothers pulled him from the rubble.

Now he and eight family members live in two tents in Belapudna. Like everyone else here, he said the cold awakens him at night and makes it hard for him to go back to sleep. Coldness makes the nights seem endless, he added.

And, like the others, he braces for the full onslaught of winter. "The snow will come. What can we do?" In the stream by the tent village, girls about the age of six wash dishes while older girls about the age of 12 wash clothes. Out in the stream bed, they feed plastic sandals and tennis shoes into fires used to heat stream water in a pot. Then they put hot water, soap and dirty clothes into a large metal pan and march bare-foot on the clothes as if they were mashing grapes.

A van is parked nearby. Outside, the lettering says it is a "Swift Registration Mobile Unit." Inside, Khalid Mahoud sits with a laptop and camera. He works for the government and is registering earthquake victims and collecting casualty data.

He says the population of Balakot was 70,000 to 80,000 before the earthquake and that 35,000 to 40,000 have died - half the city. The same figures are commonly cited by Balakot's survivors. But a Pakistani military official dismissed them as inflated. And it seems nobody could know for sure.

Mahoud said the death toll will rise unless better shelter is provided. "The government better act quickly to put up sheet houses," he said. "The aid agencies can't do it."

Al Mustafa is by far the most active relief agency in Belapudna. But other groups are busy in the quake-affected areas, including the International

Committee for the Red Cross, Red Crescent, World Food Program, Save the Children and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Throughout the affected area, you see relief teams from a wide range of countries, including the United Arab Emirates, China, Korea and Germany. A team of doctors from Cuba is treating quake victims at hospitals in Islamabad.

The most visible U.S. relief presence here in Balakot is a pair of Chinook helicopters flying supplies to the higher villages and bringing down refugees. Every day, Chinooks make passes over Balakot.

Remarkably, a large number of people say U.S. relief efforts here generally - and the Army Chinooks in particular -- have generated goodwill toward the United States in a province that was the site of daily anti-American rallies in the days after the 9/11 terror attacks, during the run-up to

the U.S. attacks on the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. Before Oct. 8, Gulzar Bibi lived in a five-room house with a TV, refrigerator, wood-burning stove and running water. Two months after the quake, she, her daughter and three-year-old granddaughter were sharing a canvas tent with no floor.

"God gave us our home and God took it away," she said. "So it will be up to God how we live. I am not sad about losing the house. I am sad that so many precious lives were lost."

The road south of Balakot along the Khunar River is lined with tent villages like Belapudna. On the ground where a primary school had collapsed, teachers are conducting open-air classes. The children, many dressed in coats, remove their shoes and take seats on a sheet of plastic. Then they run through their ABC's and math. They're being taught in both English and their first language, Urdu.

Some parents have worried about sending their children to school at this point. Their community is in shambles. Many have lost close relatives. Some have been made orphans. And in some cases they are being asked to study alongside the fresh graves of scores of their classmates who died when classrooms collapsed.

Two teachers conducting the outdoor classes say the students initially were distracted and even disturbed. But they have settled down remarkably and seem to be throwing themselves into their lessons almost as a diversion from the horrors surrounding them, they said.

Bibi Nargus, the woman who lost her husband, eldest son and home in the earthquake, now lives in a tent with her six surviving children. Her daughter Nellum, 12, resumed her studies in mid-November. She goes to school four hours a day and studies English, math, Urdu, Islam and social studies.

She weeps at times over her father's and brother's deaths and worries about her mother's sorrow. For her, the return to school was a blessing.

"It helps me forget," she said.