Rehabilitation work still slow in Shangla

Outsiders are a rarity in Shung, a small town of 3,000 people located deep in the earthquake zone, 160 km north of Islamabad, in the Shangla district of North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Children, men – and it seems even the few stray dogs roaming the streets – stare at the strangers now entering the area with some regularity, mainly from the nearby quake relief camp in the town of Mera.

Some look on in wonder and amusement at the sight of unveiled women accompanying the relief teams in a place where women and girls are virtually absent from public view.

The remote districts of Shangla, and Kohistan to its north, known for their lawlessness, consist of scattered populations divided into tiny, mountain-top hamlets spread out across a vast area.

These communities have received only limited media attention in the days immediately after the 8 October quake. A poor road infrastructure, the inaccessibility of many communities and a lack of information on deaths and damage reaching the outside world played a part in this.

As a result, relief has been slow. Some relief still has to be taken by boat along the River Indus to remote communities that cannot be reached by road.

Hundreds of survivors sleep outdoors, or within flimsy tents without floor mats, groundsheets or even flaps that can be tied down to keep out wind and rain. Some 419 deaths have been officially confirmed since the quake hit Shangla district – home to a population of 434,000. Over 21,000 out of just over 53,000 houses in the area have been badly damaged, according to the UN. Most have collapsed entirely and many structures that still stand are unsafe.

People are now desperate to rebuild homes, and claim they can reconstruct the small, simple structures most of them live in within days. "Our houses our not elaborate buildings that take months to complete. They usually comprise of a room or two, built with wood and stone and we could set these up within a day or two if we had money to buy nails, tools and tin sheets," said Saeed Aziz, 44, who has come to Shung and Mera to see if any progress is being made in the compensation promised to them. He added: "There seems to be no move to give us the Rs 25,000 [US $418] the government has promised. Meanwhile we will die in the mountains, where it is getting colder each day."

Saeed is now considering moving his family to the Mera camp, where some 2,000 people now live. But he argues: "Why should we move to this camp, when just a little money would enable us to build a far more solid house that we can use for years, rather than begging each day for food from strangers?"

As in neighbouring Battagram district, the people of Shangla are known as being proudly independent, surviving for centuries in mountains where most occupy small stretches of agricultural land and are accustomed to living on its produce. The thought of life in camps, dependent on others to supply every need, is distasteful to them. "We have never asked anyone for anything before – so why should we do so now?" asks Saeed.

While a survey of damaged and destroyed houses has, at least in part, been carried out by military and government teams in the Shangla area, the cash compensation has still to be handed out. People maintain this cash is now their most urgent need – as it would enable them to buy materials, and immediately begin building activity.

For the government, the issue is complicated by the lack of clarity regarding land titles in the area. No written documentation of land ownership exists in Shangla, as in other affected areas.

An additional complication lies in the fact that many families live as tenants on small patches of land that they work for the owners. In turn, they are given a portion of produce, the right to construct a shack on the land for families and, often, some money from the landlord to build this.

Military officials accept this situation is complicating the allocation of compensation in Shangla, as there is confusion over who actually owns the land over which demolished structures stand.

Tenants meanwhile argue that if the compensation is given to the landlord, he may not be willing to use it to build the shelter the tenants and their families require immediately.

Other than the issue of shelters, people also demand efforts to restore their means of livelihood. For most, this means the provision of more stocks of livestock so they can return to traditional farming activities.

So far, it remains unclear when compensation payments will be given out in Shangla.

Meanwhile, it is clear that living conditions, even at the camp in Mera and supervised by the Pakistani army, are far from satisfactory.

Apart from the poor quality of tents, hygiene and sanitation conditions need rapid upgrading – and it is hardly surprising that people coming down from the mountains to collect relief are reluctant to bring their families into such conditions where respite from the cold is the only advantage over their own devastated hamlets, high up in the hills.