BALAKOT, Pakistan (AP) – The head of the U.N. refugee agency said he was concerned about the fate of more than 40,000 highland quake survivors expected to flee their mountain villages as the frigid Himalayan winter hits, and a NATO official said troops were racing to get aid to the most vulnerable.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres urged local officials and the international aid community to urgently prepare for the arrival of thousands of people fleeing harsh conditions and said the world must ensure villagers who choose to remain in the ruins of their shattered homes get the help they need to survive the next few months.
"We are doing our best to ensure that everybody, even in the most remote locations, gets enough support to face the winter and to get through the winter without tragedy," he said.
Britain on Thursday announced an extra US$43 million in humanitarian relief and added that Prime Minister Tony Blair also will chair a round-table discussion on relief for Pakistan at his office to be attended by representatives from the United Nations, NATO, aid agencies and the private sector. The relief pledge is on top of US$56 million Britain has already provided.
Guterres met with Sikander Hayat, the top official in Pakistani-held Kashmir, then flew over the quake zone. "It is absolutely awful," he said, looking out from a hillside over the rubble-strewn remains of the town of Balakot, which was largely flattened by the 7.6-magnitude quake. "I have no words to describe my feelings. I don”t ever remember seeing a disaster of these proportions."
Guterres visited a refugee camp near the northwestern city of Balakot. As he asked survivors about their concerns, one man said he just wanted to rebuild his home before winter sets in.
Hayat said the government expects more than 40,000 people from towns and villages above 5,000 feet to descend to the regional capital Muzaffarabad once the weather worsens.
Officials say they are hastily building more camps to accommodate them.
The refugee chief urged the international community to keep up the momentum in recovery efforts, noting that Pakistan has hosted refugees from war and persecution in neighboring Afghanistan for decades and must not be abandoned in its hour of need.
"It”s more than a humanitarian operation. It is a political and moral duty to be here and be totally engaged," he said. "Pakistan has been the most generous host of refugees. It is time for the international community to pay back … that means rebuilding their lives. It is not only rebuilding the houses, the schools and the roads. It is rebuilding the lives of the people that we are committed to."
Also seeing the quake zone were Hollywood stars Angelina Jolie, a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. refugee agency, and Brad Pitt. They made an unannounced visit to Balakot and flew to a remote valley aboard a helicopter that brought food, blankets and plastic sheets to improve shelters, agency officials said.
The Oct. 8 quake killed an estimated 86,000 people and destroyed the homes of more than 3 million in northwestern Pakistan and its part of Kashmir. A further 1,350 died in Indian-held Kashmir.
Many of the homeless people now live in tents provided by the U.N. and other relief agencies as the frigid winter sets in the Himalayan foothills.
Air Cmdr. Andrew Walton, head of NATO”s relief team in Pakistan, said providing food and medicine to people in high mountain villages was "a race in all senses of the word" before winter snow sets in and cuts off communication links.
He told a news conference in Islamabad that an estimated 35,000 people at high altitudes are at risk from extreme cold in Bagh, one of the worst-hit districts in Pakistan”s part of Kashmir where NATO troops are operating.
NATO troops have provided shelter to 29,000 people, and efforts are under way to get shelters for the remaining 6,000, Walton said.
In Muzaffarabad, a Pakistan army spokesman sounded a positive note, saying military helicopters have stocked outlying regions with enough food, blankets and other necessary items to last through the winter, when flights likely will be hampered by bad weather.
"We are all set for the winter," Maj. Farooq Nasir said. "We have stocked tons of food, thousands of blankets and other necessary items which will be sufficient until February."