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Kashmir prized but little aided

Separatists and mosques filled in the void of official quake aid.

When the earthquake struck on Oct. 8, Muzloom Hussain was at his post for the Indian Army in Uri. The food he carried home with him after the disaster is still the only aid the village has received.

Even five days later, no aid workers have come to Madian. No Army helicopters have carried away the wounded. The villagers are wondering what is the point of being part of India.

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"We have buried three people with our own hands. We have received no help from outside," says Muzloom Hussain, standing in front of a small lean-to made of cornstalks, where his family now lives. "The thing we need is shelter now. The snows are coming."

In far-off villages like Madian and across the Indian portion of divided Kashmir, the death toll from the quake continues to rise. While relief trucks have begun to trundle in, much of the relief seems to be coming from private aid groups, mosques, and separatist parties, rather than government agencies.

On both sides of the border, the best organized aid groups are radical Islamic parties such as Jamaat i-Islami, a group that previously threw its support behind the Taliban government of Afghanistan. Gazi Hussein Mohammed, the group's leader in Pakistan, complains that the government is doing a bad job coordinating relief efforts and recently suggested that the Army should withdraw troops from its anti-Taliban operations on the Afghan border to concentrate on relief in Kashmir. Pakistan's prime minister responded that there were plenty of Pakistani troops to work in both places.

On the Indian side of the border, the Indian chief of Jamaat i-Islami, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, was also among the most organized in creating relief camps in Uri and Kamelkote, distributing aid to survivors.

In Srinagar, separatist leader Yasin Malik appealed for more relief from all sources - government, private, and international. A more secular leader, he refused to comment on whether the Indian government was doing an adequate job. "You should ask the people of Kamelkote. They can tell you better than I can," he said.

In the many areas where aid is not coming at all, such as Madian, patience is wearing thin. Many Kashmiris say they feel even more cut off from their government than before the disaster. A 16-year insurgency by Kashmiri separatists has claimed some 40,000 lives. The insurgency was the latest wrinkle in a 58-year dispute over the Himalayan state.

"The two Kashmirs should be united, neither owned by India or Pakistan," says Gulab Hussain Shah, a villager from Madian. Mr. Shah lost two children in the quake. "Had we been in control of our future then, the 10 people of our side, and the 15 of their side, would have been 25 helping each other."

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The official death toll across Kashmir currently stands at 1,450. In Madian and Kamelkote, most families have buried their relatives. For those who survived, life is extremely difficult. In this well-off district, where farmers tend apple and pomegranate orchards, homes of stone have crumbled, their new tin roofs buckled like soda cans. One family took the tin roof of their destroyed store in Madian and is living under it. Mr. Shah's family is burning the wooden beams from the rubble of their house to keep warm.

Between Uri and Kamelkote, a school that had been destroyed by shelling from the Pakistan side of the border, and rebuilt after cease-fire of 2002, is again in shambles.

Most families sleep outside, exposed to the cold. Food is running low. Faqir Mohman Sharif, an elderly farmer, walks to Kamelkote each morning for aid. Every evening, he walks back to Madian emptyhanded. Since his eyesight is bad, he simply sits and hopes someone will bring him aid. Back home, his two surviving children have gone without food for three days.

On the border with Pakistan

Sadly, these may be the fortunate ones.

In Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, young men stood by the side of the road leading to the town of Bagh in the hail and rain. Convoys passed through, but didn't stop, even as people held out their hands, yelling to get the drivers' attention.

Much of what aid is coming into the area appears to be from individuals and private aid groups. One man simply loaded his car with bread and handed it out. Religious groups from as far away as Karachi and Lahore have trucked in goods.

The majority appear to be with Jamaat i Islami. Amid the chaos of jammed roads and no electricity, they are filling a vacuum. "Jamaat i-Islami has had lots of people and they've sent them here to help us," says Rasheed Ahmed, a young man standing near the road. "They brought us food. They were the only ones who came to our village. No one else bothers to stop for us."

The most pressing need, he says, is tents. "We have blankets and food. But without tents, those don't matter, because it's so cold and wet."

The Jamaat representative in nearby Dihrkot, Mohammed Sayeed Joshua, directs matters from his pharmacy, which is still open. He says his group is the only one with a consistent presence in the area, and complains that aid trucks are going city to city, bypassing the villages. He is particularly concerned about the weather, as snow is expected within a month. "On days like today - look at this hail," he says, "people have to be like animals, living under the trees."

But, he adds, "We are happy with America. Before now, we thought they would just come and bomb us. Now, we know the Americans are [here] and trying to help."

Bottlenecks to aid

On the Indian side of Kashmir's Line of Control, as the border is known, Army trucks were on the road. India has some 400,000 troops in Kashmir. But Thursday, along the road to Kamelkote, Army trucks were going post to post, carrying no supplies. In Kamelkote, a medical center had been set up, but the supplies were from private groups; the Army was there to provide security.

In Madian, Nazar Din pulled two of his children, 4-year old son Busharat and 1-year-old daughter Nazia, from the rubble of his three-story stone house. The bodies of his two children were found in fetal positions, their hands crossed as if in prayer. "God's hand has brought this," he says, his eyes welling with tears. "What can we do?"

His neighbor, Nazir Fatima, says most relief is bottlenecked in cities that have roads. The aid is given to elders who promise to take it to villages like Madian, but the aid doesn't come. "The blankets and tents come to Kamelkote, and the elders promise to distribute it, but they give it to their relatives. Meanwhile, we sit in the open all night without blankets," she says.