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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 October 2005, 08:43 GMT 09:43 UK
Beasts ease burden of quake victims

By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News, Karachi

Soldiers lead a convoy of mules carrying relief supplies in Pakistan-run Kashmir
The mules have to go through a rigorous selection procedure
They have their own parades, rigorous training and dedicated doctors. They are treated as fully fledged soldiers.

Some villagers used to laugh at how much time the army spent on them.

But now the mules of the Pakistani army are proving saviours for some of the tens of thousands of quake survivors still stuck atop inaccessible mountains.

Nine days after the killer quake struck Kashmir and parts of northern Pakistan, the army mobilised its animal transport units (ATUs), or what's left of them, to reach inaccessible areas - sometimes without any human assistance.

These units of specially trained mules have been a critical link in the logistics serving the Pakistan army - and the Royal Indian Army under the Raj before that - in the mountainous northern regions and Kashmir.

Like everyone else in the affected areas, a large number of these mules were wiped out by the quake.

But those that have survived have been pressed into service for the relief effort.

Rigorous selection

Military officials dealing with the ATUs say there were more than 2,000 mules deployed in Kashmir when the quake struck.

Soldiers unpack mules carrying aid for people in Pakistan-run Kashmir
These mules are indispensable even in peace time
Lt Col Syed Karrar Hussain

An officer in the border region of Chikothi in Kashmir told the BBC news website that "only a fraction survived".

The army takes the loss hard - these mules enjoy a status no less than that of a fully fledged soldier.

Like men, they have to go through a rigorous selection procedure followed by several months of training before they can be formally drafted into the army.

The rearing and selection takes place at Mona Depot near the city of Sargodha - 100km (62 miles) south-west of the capital Islamabad.

The mules are categorised by weight and health after being evaluated by army vets.

If selected, they are placed with either of the two services - the stronger ones go to the Mule Artillery while the lightweights are placed with Mule GS (general service) units.

The elite corps is known as the Animal Regiment - comprising 390 mules and 22 horses - while the others comprise what are called Animal Squadrons consisting of 288 mules and 18 horses.

Critical link

Lt Col Syed Karrar Hussain is an expert in logistics with the Pakistan army who has dealt with ATUs when serving in Kashmir and the northern areas.

"These mules are indispensable even in peace time," he says.

Soldiers lead a convoy of mules carrying relief supplies in Pakistan-run Kashmir
Over 2,000 mules were deployed in Kashmir when the quake struck

"Literally, they go where no man or machine can."

Mountain roads, says Col Hussain, are classified according to the ease with which they can be negotiated.

The "road head" is the limit to which normal transport can reach. After that is the "jeep head", beyond which is purely mule territory.

"The oxygen levels drop sharply after 8,500 to 9,000 feet where humans find it difficult even to carry themselves, let alone any load," Col Hussain says.

That's where the mules come in. A fully loaded mule can carry up to 72kg and walk 26km without resting.

Distance in the mountains is often calculated in time rather than kilometres, which means these mules can walk non-stop for seven to eight hours.

If required to go full distance, up to 18kg of their weight is replaced by especially prepared food consisting of chickpeas and sugar.

The mules are allowed to stop and eat at regular intervals and these stoppages are calculated in their travel time.

Officers with experience of ATUs say the mules are so well trained that they rarely exceed the time allocated to them.

And having travelled a particular route over a period of five to six months, many can find their way from one camp to the next without human assistance.

Under normal circumstances, a herd of mules is accompanied by a horse rider. But under exceptional circumstances - such as periods of military tensions when extensive shelling is taking place across the Line of Control - the mules can carry rations and ammunition to the forward posts on their own.

"It is not uncommon for us to set them off at last light and we get a message from the forward post the next day that they have arrived safely," an officer at Chikothi said.

"And if they get stuck somewhere because of bad weather or a particularly bad landslide, they just return to base."

Deadly tethers

Military officials say it is often not easy for those outside the army to appreciate the services rendered by these animals.

Soldiers lead mules carrying aid for people in Pakistan-run Kashmir
These mules can carry up to 72kg and walk 26km

Villagers, they say, would often laugh when they saw how much time and energy was being expended on the animals.

"The mules have regular parades, including water parades and food parades," says Col Hussain.

"Every unit has a doctor dedicated to their care and they have regular medical check ups which, mind you, even the soldiers evade at times."

Their trainers, too, are deeply attached to their mules.

The only area where the facilities afforded to mules do not match those of the humans is shelter.

Military installations all over Kashmir and the northern areas - called hardship areas - are low-cost affairs.

The animals often have nothing more than a corrugated iron roof held up by wooden beams stuck in walls of stones.

When the quake struck, all the mules were tethered. Without that, many may have used their animal instincts to survive.

Map of area affected by the South Asia quake


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