Avalanches Sweep Through Kashmir, Killing Dozens


MUZAFFARABAD, Kashmir — At least 55 people have been killed and dozens injured as avalanches swept away homes in the mountainous region of the Pakistan-controlled portion of Kashmir.

The powerful avalanches have also affected Indian-controlled areas of the disputed region, with at least 10 people killed on Tuesday, officials said.

At least three dozen children were struck by an avalanche as they made their way to school on Monday in the part of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan, officials said. One child was killed and three others injured.

Most of the casualties took place in the Neelum Valley, which abuts a river that divides the Pakistani and Indian portions of Kashmir.

Heavy rain and snowfall on Saturday triggered the avalanches, which rolled over villages perched on the steep mountains, burying roads out of the valley.

Many were left with a stark choice: burying their dead or taking injured relatives to the hospital, making the long trek through the snow on foot.

Abdul Rahman Sheikh, 62, said an avalanche had buried his home and seven others in his village on Monday. He dug through the snow until midnight to rescue his family, recovering his daughter-in-law — who survived with injuries — and the frozen bodies of eight other family members. He decided to bury the dead first.

“I have eight dead bodies lying in the open. If I send her to the hospital, who will look after her there? And if I go along with her, who will bury the eight bodies?” Mr. Sheikh asked mournfully.

Asif Iqbal, a 25-year-old teacher, said he heard a rumble and a crash Monday afternoon and looked outside to see rooftops of nearby houses barely peeking up from the snow.

“People were screaming and calling for help,’’ Mr. Iqbal said. “A schoolgirl from my school was buried alive under one avalanche, and we could only hear her calling for us to save her.”

“We had no tools to rescue her and were waiting for a miracle,” he continued. “Someone brought a shovel, and we dug a hole in the broken roof of her home and rescued her after three hours. It’s nothing but a miracle.”

The accounting was grim: At least 41 bodies were recovered from two villages, according to Syed Yasir Bukhari, a local government revenue officer. Casualties are expected to rise once rescue crews arrive by helicopter, the only way to reach affected areas.

The Pakistani military is spearheading rescue operations. Police officers and local volunteers are walking, sometimes for miles, to areas covered by as much as two meters of snow, braving freezing temperatures and the threat of more avalanches.

At least 10 people are missing, officials said, and rescue efforts are underway for those buried in the snow. Helicopters are circling avalanche sites in hopes of spotting survivors; tents and emergency food rations are being sent to affected areas.

Some volunteers who rushed to help their neighbors soon became victims themselves.

Abdul Rahman, 29, an imam from Bakwali Bala, said he and several others had gathered their families at a house that they thought was a safe distance from avalanche-prone areas. Mr. Rahman said the women and children in their families were told to stay at the house while the men went to neighboring villages to help.

“Suddenly a strong wind blew, and we heard the familiar roar of the avalanche,” he said. “But we could not see anything as it was dark, and the village was covered with fog.

“I tried to run toward our home but could hardly walk; I was sinking in about eight feet of snow. At some distance I heard women and children crying and calling for help. When we reached our village, we saw piles of snow and mud where we had left our families — 18 people in all.”

Heavy rains and landslides in other parts of Pakistan were blamed for at least a dozen other deaths since Sunday, officials said, with the provinces of Punjab and Balochistan hit hardest.

Jalaluddin Mughal reported from Muzaffarabad, Maria Abi-Habib from New Delhi, and Salman Masood from Islamabad, Pakistan.

Source : Nytimes