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Last Updated: Monday, 27 March 2006, 16:42 GMT 17:42 UK
Quake victims' reluctant exodus
By Mike Donkin
BBC News, Muzaffarabad

A tent camp for Kashmir quake survivors in Thuri Park, Muzaffarabad
Most tent camps, like this one, are muddy and scruffy

It's almost six months since the earthquake in Kashmir and the authorities say some progress has been made in rebuilding some of the houses that were destroyed.

Now, with winter coming to an end, the government is keen for some of the hundreds of thousands made homeless to return to their villages.

But people in the tent camps near Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, are wary about leaving.

Nasima lives with her eight children in one such tented camp on the banks of the Neelum river, which was pretty much the epicentre of the quake.

We still have to go back to our village, even if we have to live under the sky
Quake survivor Nasima

It's a scruffy, muddy place - families with their washing hanging over their tent ropes and children playing in filthy, rubbish-strewn puddles.

"We are living right beside the river here. If it floods, what can we do?" Nasima asks.

"These tents are no shelter for us. My children are small and this is no life for them. It's not healthy and we don't feel safe at night."

Vulnerable

She and others like her all say that they have been given no acceptable choice.

They would like to leave this life behind them and the Pakistan government is more or less forcing them to do that.

But they fear that once they go back to their villages in the mountains, they will be abandoned and still more vulnerable.

"Our village is destroyed. We have no house, we have no land, we have no animals," says Nasima.

"The government won't give us any money when we get back there. We're sure of that.

"But we still have to go back to our village, even if we have to live under the sky."

Darren Boisvert from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), who is helping to organise the quake survivors' move back to their villages, says it is going to be difficult.

"It's going to be a huge problem. I think there is a lot of fear in the people about what they can expect when they get back to their villages.

"Will living in those villages be safe? What services will the government be able to provide once they get there?

Compensation

Aid agencies and the Pakistani government are keen that the quake survivors do not stay in the camps for too long and start rebuilding before next winter.

Already tens of thousands are on the move through the mountains on aid agency trucks, or walking with all the goods they salvaged and with their animals.

Boys at Thuri Park camp for quake survivors in Muzaffarabad look on as food is distributed
There is need for more relief and provisions for survivors
But settling the quake survivors, Mr Boisvert says, will pose a bigger challenge for aid agencies and they are already planning for that.

"We are estimating roughly 30% of the people who are living in the tent villages right now will be still in the tent villages come this next winter and we will have to make provisions for some sort of emergency relief goods for the winter that is coming ahead."

To rebuild their homes the survivors need to apply to the government for 50,000 rupees ($834), and this money will only be given to them when they move to their villages and start rebuilding.

"Not all people have got the compensation money, the first 25,000 rupees ($417)," Mr Boisvert says. "And to get the second portion of that money - there will be three payments - they have to start rebuilding.

"But do they have the materials for that? Do they know how to build earthquake-resistant houses, structures, which is part of the requirements before they get the extra money? It's a huge challenge.

"We have years and years of work here in this region before we get everyone back home and back to the level of where they were before the earthquake."

The earthquake was the first disaster in people's lives here, but it might not be the last. A reluctant exodus is underway in the foothills of the Himalayas.




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