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Tents are only protection against winter

Pakistan quake survivors brace for Himalayan cold

BALAKOT, Pakistan -- After the call to evening prayer rings out in this ruined town, three families huddle around a small fire, eating rice from a single large plate. Then they quickly retreat to their shared tent to brace for the long night.

The approach of the harsh Himalayan winter, already marked by near-freezing temperatures, is bringing new misery to thousands of quake survivors living in tent cities. And they're the lucky ones -- officials estimate 800,000 people have no shelter of any kind.

The United Nations warns of a second wave of deaths from South Asia's monster quake once winter kicks in if the estimated 3.3 million homeless do not get winterized tents, blankets, food, and medical care.

''I pray for help. For food, but also for Allah to save us from the cold," said Karam Ali, 65, who serves as leader of the three families that have banded together.

In their canvas tent -- about the size of a car -- they settle in just after sunset, 15 people sharing just three blankets. Ten of them are children, four under age 5.

Their mothers heat their tiny trousers beside the fire for a little extra warmth before putting them on. The babies wail through the night as temperatures turn frigid.

''I don't sleep. I'm awake trying to keep my son warm," said Fazil Deen, Faisal's father. ''It's cold for the adults, and it's even worse for children."

In the high mountain villages, snow has already fallen and temperatures are predicted to dip as low as 14 degrees over the next couple of nights.

Deen said the families arrived in Balakot last week after trudging 25 miles from their village, Kawai.

They stayed near their destroyed homes as long as they could after the Oct. 8 quake, but the weather became too cold at night living in the open.

The food they had saved up to get them through the winter lay under the rubble of their crushed houses.

They watched helicopter after helicopter pass over their settlement, he said. They waved broken glass and mirrors, hoping to attract the pilots' attention but never succeeded.

In Balakot, which has become a hub for aid, their situation isn't much better.

Days begin before dawn, as the families try to warm themselves with tea before beginning the daily scramble for survival.

Shaziah, 15, the eldest of the children, leads the girls on a hunt for food and other handouts.

The men fan out searching for extra clothes, wood and cardboard to fuel their meager fires. Each of the survivors in their group has only one set of warm clothing.

Some people in the tent camp burned donated clothes to keep their cooking fires going for warmth yesterday. Some put sheep and other livestock in handout clothing to protect them against the cold.

There are separate aid lines for men and women, so ''the girls have a better chance at getting food and blankets," Deen said. ''There are too many men, and they are stronger."

Flat, grassy surfaces are at a premium in Balakot, once a scenic mountainside holiday retreat. Ali's group had to put their makeshift shelter on an incline just a yard from the main road. Car lights from passing vehicles illuminate the canvas tent at night.

Inside, there are few signs of home. It is cluttered with the few belongings that the families have been able to obtain. Their clothes are piled in one corner. Another holds tattered shoes.

''We're sleeping on the dirt," Ali said. ''We're staying together because we could have died together."

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