"This is my village. This is my home," Muhammad Shabbir said outside his tent with his wife and four children under the hot midday sun, after returning from the nearby city Mansehra where they were staying with relatives.
"I really wanted to come back. I want to rebuild, but I don't know whether I can do it," the 40-year-old driver said.
That's a question being asked again and again by the 1,900 residents of this picturesque village wedged into a hillside, 25 km north of Muzaffarabad, the provincial capital of quake-ravaged Pakistani-administered Kashmir.
More than 95 percent of the homes in the village were destroyed by the powerful quake that ripped through Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Pakistani-administered Kashmir, killing more than 75,000 people and leaving more than 3.5 million homeless.
According to the United Nations, hundreds of villages and hamlets were completely wiped out in the region. Earlier estimates of 400,000 homes damaged or destroyed now exceed 600,000, while over 500 health facilities, nearly 6,000 schools and colleges, and countless government buildings were destroyed, killing many doctors, teachers, community leaders, and government officials.
In Kahori alone, 175 people lost their lives and 65 were injured, while the village itself, comprized mostly of civil servants who commuted to Muzaffarabad each day to sustain their families, lay in ruins.
Prior to the quake, the village had a post office, bank, health facility and school -- amenities that any community in the area would have been proud of.
"We had everything," Khawaja Masood, a government worker for the area's rural development office, maintained. "Now it's all gone."
Today, even access to clean drinking water is limited to 10 to 15 minutes a day.
And while 300 students are currently enrolled in the village school under a tent, it is questionable whether they will ever be able to rebuild. Villagers told IRIN that not a single government official had come forward with a plan and there was increasing concern that they had been forgotten.
Throughout the region, many villages face similar circumstances and despite admirable efforts by the government and international community to rebuild in some areas, many other areas have been less fortunate. In short, conditions in Kahori, like many other villages in the area, remain grim and the casual observer could be forgiven for thinking nothing was happening.
Rubble and debris block many of narrow footpaths that traverse the village where residents contemplate another winter under tent.
"I can't live in this tent in the winter," one resident complained, adjacent to the collapsed remains of his home. "I received the first compensation installment from the government," he said, referring to the first $400 installment of a $3,000 compensation scheme established by the government for returning homeowners. "But what good is that? I can't even get rid of the rubble with that amount."
Yet with no job and his savings exhausted, the 38-year-old man has virtually no choice but to use that money to live on.
In smaller villages in the area, the plight of residents is much the same -- but sometimes more challenging. In Gali Kokhran, perched on a hilltop near Kahori, access is particularly problematic for the 400 residents who maintain they were "forced" to return by the authorities.
"We didn't have a choice," said Jumat Ali, a 35-year-old baker, who returned two months earlier from a displaced persons camp in Muzaffarabad.
Despite the reopening of a small school with two teachers in the village, the situation has changed little since the quake first hit, while in other instances it has actually worsened.
Following the 7.6 magnitude quake, local springs used by the community dried up, while on the issue of health, there is no doctor resident in the community and a journey to Muzaffarabad to seek treatment on perilous roads could take up to three hours.
But it is the issue of shelter that remains paramount on the minds of residents in Gali Khokran -- and throughout the 30,000-km quake-affected area.
"I'm living in a tent now. My house was destroyed," Ali said, sitting atop the remnants of his home. His story is indicative of the thousands of quake survivors who lost their homes.
Despite having received the first part of the government's compensation, the father of four complains that due to delays in further payments, that money was spent long ago to sustain his family.
"I don't know how I will survive, much less rebuild," Ali repeatedly said.
Indeed, that is a concern amongst many aid workers on the ground, who now warn unless rebuilding efforts are accelerated this summer, there is a strong possibility of another influx of people into urban areas this winter.
"Of course people in these areas will come back down. They have no choice and we aren't moving fast enough," one UN staff member in Muzaffarabad, who declined to be identified, told IRIN reluctantly.
Should that happen, Pakistani authorities and the international community will face fresh challenges in the region's larger cities and towns, where UN Humanitarian Coordinator to Pakistan, Jan Vandemootele, has already conceded that more than 100,000 people, a residual caseload of displaced persons, would likely be living under tents this winter and for the foreseeable future.
If more people join them, a new crisis could well loom on the horizon.
"I've been to these villages. Rebuilding hasn't really started yet," one aid worker stated.
In short, despite noble efforts by the aid community, clearly more needs to be done and fast. "The clock is ticking," warned one NGO worker who has spent more than four months in the area. "We need to do more."
But that comes at a cost. The United Nations in May launched a $300 million 12-month rebuilding plan to help tens of thousands of quake survivors to ensure that the services they received in camps over the last few months return with them to the villages and hamlets. And while the UN has already received $100 million, the world body is urging countries who pledged donations to redirect their funds to this effort.
The goal of the Early Recovery Plan (ERA) is to support the longer-term road to reconstruction by bridging the end of the relief phase and the start of full-scale reconstruction.
According to the plan, experience shows that activities tend to tail off to a low ebb as relief operations come to an end and before reconstruction activities fully take place. If this were to happen, many survivors could face another difficult situation next winter. Timely support needs to arrive to affected populations who are starting to rebuild their normal lives so that they no longer have to rely on humanitarian assistance. For this reason, the ERA outlines a set of operational programs for early recovery to minimise the gap between relief and reconstruction.
[Integrated Regional Information Networks is a project the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.]
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June 27, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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