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Away from the limelight, volunteers continue rebuilding Pakistan
30 November 2005
by Dominic Casciani

A critical issue for any volunteer in the field is ensuring they have usable skills once they are there. But Imran’s team saw their job as simply getting supplies to locations that had remained cut off. (From BBC News)A critical issue for any volunteer in the field is ensuring they have usable skills once they are there. But Imran’s team saw their job as simply getting supplies to locations that had remained cut off. (From BBC News)
Although the earthquake in Kashmir has dropped out of most of the news, many volunteers are still working in the field, trying to save the lives of villagers who have lost their homes -and may lose more with the onset of winter.

Imran Saithna, a young British-Pakistani, has just returned to London after spending three weeks working in an area of Kashmir that had no contact with the outside world after the earthquake hit.

With no professional background in emergency relief, Imran like many others took a chance on getting a flight to Islamabad to see if agencies could make use of them.

Arriving in the country, he quickly found his way to two agencies - the Joint Action Committee and Relief Shelter Drive. There he met a group of like-minded young people from around the world.

Along with the rest of his team, they hired a couple of lorries, filled them with supplies and headed off into the mountains of the Bargh District, one of the high areas the major agencies had not reached.

After six hours of driving and another four hours of back-breaking trekking on foot over mountainous valleys, says Imran, the team found the village of Surrell - a settlement 11,000 feet up and home to perhaps 3,500 people.

"One of the big problems is that these places just don't exist on official maps," says Imran. "The army were telling us that this was uncharted territory, yet everyone knew that there were people living here.

"When we got there we saw that the earthquake had destroyed virtually every structure. The villagers had received no aid at all -no help with food, no help with shelter. There were kids who desperately needed medical help, people with open wounds which had not been treated. No one had been up there at all."

The scenes shocked Imran and the rest of the team. It was not just the scale of the devastation - but also the simple fact that these people effectively did not exist as far as aid efforts go. Bodies had gone unburied, livestock killed by the quake lay rotting in fields. Pneumonia and other disaster-related illnesses were apparent.

But while the media had done its job in the immediate aftermath covering aid efforts in major centres such as Muzzaffrabad, there were countless settlements like Surrell which were receiving no help at all.

With snows of up to three metres expected, many people like the villagers of Surrell remain today in the open. They are caught between freezing to death in what remains of their mountain homes - or losing their livelihoods and means of survival by leaving their settlements behind.

"People desperately needed shelters - they were absolutely scared of anything made of concrete because it had been the concrete that had collapsed and killed so many," says Imran. "Tin or wood roofs and floors had survived - but we had no means to build more of those, so we had to try something else."

In the following days the team began sourcing thousands of "bori bags", essentially very strong, large plastic sacks which can be filled with earth to make insulated, cheap, stable shelters. When Imran left to return home, that effort was continuing.

American Wesley Olson was among the other international volunteers who found his way to the same valley.

Originally from Los Angeles, Wesley had been travelling around India when the quake struck. He headed for Pakistan and is still there, furiously buying up thousands of bori bags to drive up to remote settlements. Like many volunteers, he is frustrated with the drying up of media interest.

"I think there are a lot of people who have arrived here who just want to give something back from their travels," he says via satellite phone. "I know of at least three or four people who came up from India to help out.

"People back home want to know why I'm out there doing what we're doing, they have seen the pictures of the aid in the towns. But we're here because 90% of houses have been flattened. I came here for two weeks thinking I could help out by answering phones but it then really took off."

Warning

But volunteering does have its drawbacks. Mahmood Hassan of British charity Islamic Aid and chairman of the Pakistan Development Network, said the organisation had been flooded with offers of help in the days after the quake. But unless someone has a specific skill to offer, or knowledge of an area, good intentions can be wasted he warns.

"Our official policy is to try as much as possible to use local people," says Mr Hassan. "In these kinds of situations people can spend more than £1,000 getting somewhere to try and help and then find they don't know what they are doing. That £1,000 could be better spent by people in the field with the contacts and the structures to get things done."

The Pakistan earthquake has been different, however, and Mr Hassan says that it is clear that informal assistance far beyond the help on offer from agencies and governments has played a key role in saving lives.

Pakistani families spread around the world, particularly in the UK, have been moved to go because they know the area well and believe they can help, he says.

While this kind of volunteering can be useful, says Mr Hassan, the real problem is when someone flies in for a very short period of time.

"We've had a shortage of doctors and surgeons. But it takes a few days on arrival to acclimatise and get things going. If people with skills volunteer in these situations the situation we must avoid is someone having very little time to do anything on arrival before they have to leave."