On 8 October an earthquake struck Pakistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, killing tens of thousands and leaving millions more desperately in need of aid, in tough and inhospitable terrain. WFP spokesperson Robin Lodge sent this e-card from the frontline of one of the most challenging logistical operations the agency has ever faced.
Just a few kilometres down the road everything was flattened, so it was surprising that the town of Mansehra had emerged virtually unscathed from the earthquake.
Even so, most of the guys at the WFP sub-office had opted to sleep outdoors for the first couple of weeks, because of the aftershocks. But these had apparently eased off by the time I arrived, so I checked in at a downtown hotel.
My room was perched on top of the building, four floors up. If there was another earthquake, I reasoned, at least I’d end up at the top of the pile.
The room was shaking violently from side to side, as if it had been gripped by an angry giant
Robin Lodge, WFP spokesperson
A little after seven in the morning, I regretted my decision. There had been a few tremors during the night, but this time the room was shaking violently from side to side, as if it had been gripped by an angry giant.
Outside there was pandemonium, with people pouring out of buildings into the street, shouting and screaming. Four flights of stairs up, there was no way I would get out.
Before I could even think about it, the shaking stopped. Amazingly everything seemed intact. Another few seconds, however, and I am sure I would have been in a pile of rubble.
That is exactly what the town of Balakot – only an hour’s drive from Mansehra – has been turned into. Before the morning of 8 October it was a thriving market town and tourist centre. Now, not a single building remains standing.
Most have been flattened into pancakes of pulverised concrete. One or two have kept some structural form but have lurched over at a 45-degree angle, like beached ocean liners.
Tangles of reinforcing steel crisscross the wreckage, like razor wire over a battlefield. There can have been few survivors pulled out of these ruins – the rubble is compacted, leaving no cavities.
Seen from the air, Balakot is a grey smear across the valley floor, divided in two by a rushing red river, swollen and stained by thousands of tons of earth and rock from countless landslides further up the valley.
But back at ground level, life must go on, and even in Balakot people are trying to regain some sense of normality.
A barber had managed to drag his chair out of the rubble and was busy cutting hair
Robin Lodge, WFP spokesperson
Shopkeepers have set up stalls on top of the wreckage of their shops and there is no shortage of customers. At one junction, a barber had managed to drag his chair out of the rubble and was busy cutting hair.
On every patch of level ground, tent cities have sprung up.
Some are haphazard, with tents of all shapes and sizes supplied by various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or private individuals.
Others are orderly rows of tents from the UN's refugee agency UNHCR, administered by the army and with food delivered by WFP.
It is still a crisis, but the achievement of the joint aid effort over the past weeks has been remarkable.
Getting some two million people under shelter, providing them with food, warm clothing, medical support and access to safe water – all in some of the toughest and most inhospitable terrain the world can provide – was little short of a logistical miracle.
There are still tens of thousands of people in the most remote mountain areas who are yet to be reached, but thanks to gargantuan efforts by all involved, more and more of them are now getting help.
Go anywhere in the earthquake zone and you can hear the throb of helicopters overhead.
WFP is currently operating 13 MI-8s, each capable of carrying two tons of food or other goods, as well as two giant MI-26 helicopters, with a payload of 20 tons.
In addition there are Chinooks and CH-53s from the US, Britain and Germany, and 45 Pakistan Army MI-17s.
Dawn till dusk
When the weather allows, these are flying from dawn to dusk, carrying desperately needed supplies to remote villages still inaccessible by road.
All parties involved have co-ordinated their efforts to avoid overlap, and as a result are airlifting more than 100 tons of goods a day.
Living under canvas
The UN’s main base camp is in Muzaffarabad, the main city of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. It was extensively damaged by the quake; some 70,000 people died there, about half of them children, crushed inside their school buildings.
Some reconstruction efforts have started, but tens of thousands of people in the city are living under canvas, many of them without heating, as winter sets in.
One of the biggest threats is the lack of sanitation, and there are fears of an outbreak of cholera if this is not remedied.
Conditions in the UN camp are adequate, if spartan. And the food is fine – especially if you like pickled herring
Robin Lodge, WFP spokesperson
Conditions in the UN camp are adequate, if spartan. The tents are heated and there are hot showers. And the food is fine – especially if you like pickled herring. What was really impressive was the speed with which ICT set up communications and email.
But it is away from the base camps that you really get the sense of what WFP has achieved. Only six weeks into the emergency operation and we had already managed to get food and other supplies to the million people we targeted at the outset.
Convoys and rub-halls
Drive anywhere in the earthquake zone and you are sure to see a WFP truck convoy. Look around, and you’ll see our rub-halls (warehouse tents), loaded with grain oil and pulses, pre-positioned for the winter ahead.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems. Blocked roads mean that there are still pockets where people have not been reached, especially in the high, narrow valleys where the helicopters cannot land.
And finding implementing partners to distribute the food we deliver has been particularly difficult. Most NGOs on the ground simply do not have the capacity to work on a crisis of this scale. In the early stages we had to rely to a large extent on volunteers.
Additionally there is a constant need to hire and train local people as guards, warehousemen and loaders. The training can be a slow process.
As I was leaving the WFP office tent in Muzaffarabad, I overheard a logistics officer painstakingly and patiently explaining the necessary procedures to three newly recruited warehousemen:
“When I have finished explaining this, I want you to tell me if there is anything you didn’t understand. If you don’t understand, I can always explain again. But if you say you understand and then you get it wrong, because you didn’t understand, I’m just going to have to come along and kill you!” he said with a broad smile.
I think they got the message.