Mules carry aid to Pakistani quake survivors

Mules are slogging through mud and around rockslides to bring emergency aid to the remotest areas of Pakistan's devastated earthquake zone, where helicopters grounded by bad weather have frequently been unable to reach.

The Pakistani army mule train laden with sacks of food that plodded Bisuti was the first outside help since a huge earthquake nine days earlier sheared away chunks of the mountain face and blocked the only road to this hamlet tucked 2,700 meters (9,000 feet) up in the Himalayas.

The nearest town with food and other relief goods is Bagh, a rugged descent of nearly 2,000 meters (5,000 feet). The rocky road winds along unforgiving terrain, with mountainside towering on one side and a sheer drop on the other.

It is a hard trek for most people, and particularly so for 37-year-old Mohammed Mushtaq, whose foot is turned almost completely inward from childhood polio, forcing him to hobble about with a cane.

The convoy of mules led by Pakistani troops took three hours to climb to Bisuti. When they arrived on Monday, it was chaos as Mushtaq and other smiling villagers crowded around.

Soldiers pleaded with people to be orderly, getting them to form lines. The soldiers ripped open sacks holding sugar, flour, cooking oil, tea and lentils. One by one, they distributed the supplies until nothing was left except biscuits.

The weather problems and Pakistan's shortage of helicopters have made mules a key resource in the rugged mountains of Pakistani Kashmir, which suffered the worst damage during the earthquake. Many villages remained cut off as crews struggled to clear blocked roads.

"We had to decide the best way to reach as many people and places as we could," said Capt. Noor-ul Amin, who accompanied the Bisuti mule train, part of a Pakistani army mule regiment that has 200 of the animals in Bagh.

The World Food Program also has begun using packhorses and mules to carry emergency rations. But the U.N. agency has been frustrated by the time-consuming efforts needed to hire the animals.

"We are also having to negotiate directly with donkey and mule owners, to persuade them to transport supplies to villages which have had no food since the quake. All this is taking up precious time," Michael Jones, emergency coordinator for WFP's relief operation, said in a statement.

Echoing the region's devastation, Bisuti appeared to have no buildings undamaged. Tin roofs built on a slant to prevent a buildup of snow over the winter sagged to one side. Some houses collapsed when the quake snapped wooden beams, reports the AP. I.L.

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