Touring high-altitude villages in Pakistan, where aid is just arriving for victims of the 8 October earthquake that killed at least 73,000 people, UN Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie saw firsthand the urgency of getting more aid quickly to areas that will soon become inaccessible because of winter.
"This is not just one disaster that has happened,” Ms. Jolie, Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said as she ended her 3 day visit over the weekend. “There is another disaster that could happen very soon if there is not enough coordination and money on the ground as soon as possible."
As she talked with survivors at Jabel Sharoon, a frigid wind was already sweeping off mountains dusted with snow. Those who have had to give up the struggle to stay through the winter are making their way down the slopes to relief camps. Some are moving into spontaneous clusters of tents, a potential health problem, but others are moving to large, well-equipped camps set up by the Pakistan authorities with UNHCR assistance.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Operation Winter Race has been designed to provide urgently needed shelter to thousands of people between 5,000 and 7,000 feet of altitude before the onset of winter.
It has so far resulted in the construction of more than 19,000 shelter units by the military and another 40,000 by the humanitarian community and Pakistan civil society.
“Even as winter threatens people’s health and safety, the race is not lost – it is just more difficult. We need ongoing and additional support in the next few days so we could reach as many of the remaining vulnerable people as possible,” the UN Emergency Operations Chief said, reiterating that relief needs for the quake are still less than 50 per cent funded.
UNHCR’s mandate does not normally include disaster relief, but it said it has been tasked by the UN with providing guidance on building and maintaining temporary camps because of its decades of experience caring for refugee influxes around the world.
Ms. Jolie visited the Ghari Habibullah camp, which was erected by the Pakistani army, and was relieved to hear from residents that, while still traumatized, they now felt secure as the winter approaches. The camp commander reported a steady, continuing flow of survivors from the high valleys.
On Saturday, along with fellow actor Brad Pitt, she visited the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) in Islamabad, which was the key medical facility in the weeks following the earthquake, and talked with children – many of them amputees – who require continuing assistance. At one point thousands of patients had overflowed the wards and were being treated in the corridors.
After hearing that the hospital was trying to raise funds to buy 40 specialized beds for patients who are paralyzed from spinal injuries suffered in the earthquake, Mr. Pitt immediately offered to provide all of them – a donation worth more than $100,000.
“These people have suffered so much, but they have such tremendous spirit,” he said. “I’m really moved by the relief effort, the communal spirit of it all. And I’m very happy to be able to help in some way.”