Mule train provides lifeline for remote quake survivors

WFP is using all means necessary to get desperately needed food aid to remote survivors of this month's South Asia earthquake - and that includes pack mules. Spokesperson Mia Turner reports.

In the race to reach hundreds of earthquake-affected villages in Pakistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir before the onset of winter, WFP is having to use all of its logistical know-how.

In Muzaffarabad district, the epicentre of the earthquake, it has nine distribution teams delivering an average of over 100 metric tons of food aid a day, using transport that extends from the highly sophisticated - such as helicopters - to the more rustic: pack mules.

Beasts of burden

Copyright: 2005 WFP/Rein Skullerud

While these beasts of burden are common in this mountainous region, locating them since the earthquake has not been easy, as many were killed or injured. However, after much searching, WFP managed to put together a team of 48 mules.

The various owners requested that their animals be used for transporting desperately needed relief to the hardest-hit villages. Scattered across a huge area of high-altitude terrain, many of these have not been accessed since the earthquake.

Scene of devastation

The mules set off from Shaeed Ghali, a village rich in forests that was once a hikers’ paradise. The last village before the road overlooking Muzaffarabad ends and the mountain begins, today Shaeed Ghali is a scene of devastation.

The inhabitants, despite being hard-hit themselves, say those higher up the mountain are worse off, and urge WFP to send the mule train and the food aid upwards.

100kg per mule

The mules are transporting wheat flour, pulses, high energy biscuits and oil. Each mule can carry at least 100 kilograms, the equivalent of two sacks of wheat flour.

The destination is Hirkutli, a three-hour climb for the mules and a central point for many of the villages in the area.

Looking for food

Copyright: 2005 WFP/Rein Skullerud

Said Hassan Shah, 65, is from Miramundgran, another three-hour climb from Shaeed Ghali. He has come down the mountain to look for food and shelter to take back up to the 20 members of his family, who for the time being are living on maize harvested before the earthquake.

His sunken cheeks and obvious fatigue show the toll the devastation is taking on villagers, many of whom have scant resources to spend on food.

Said is returning back up the mountain empty-handed, and is relieved to see the WFP commodities on their way up. He describes other villages in as much need as his own.

Word of mouth

Obtaining information about the hundreds of mountain villages in the region is difficult. A telephone exchange had been set up in Shaeed Ghali just one month before the earthquake struck and is no longer working; what news there is comes via word of mouth, loudspeakers or radio handsets.

“We've never had such a major crisis,” says one resident of Shaeed Ghali, as he steps to the side of the mule path to make way for homemade stretchers being carried down the mountain bearing the dead and injured.

“When it happened, we sent a jeep down to Muzaffarabad to try to get help, and then we saw that Muzaffarabad was also hit and that people there were fleeing up the mountain, thinking we were better off up here,” he recalls.

Beasts of hope

As it finds more animals, WFP plans to expand the mule train to reach other affected areas.

“This is the first time any organization has brought us relief by mule,” says the grateful Shaeed Ghali resident. For survivors of this month's devastating earthquake, the beast of burden has become a beast of hope.