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Lose Your Land Or Lose Your Life?

The snow is waist-deep, food stocks are dangerously low and villagers say the cold has killed several of their children since a devastating earthquake three months ago.

But most residents of northwestern Pakistan's remote Maidan village won't be leaving for warmer lowland camps, because they have no land deeds and fear moving could cost them their homes.

Their forefathers had simply settled the area and claimed it, said village elder Saleem Khan.

"This is an undocumented area, and we have no titles to our land," he said.

Scores of families left the village of 5,000 people after the Oct. 8 quake damaged about half its homes and killed five villagers. Other families have taken over some abandoned wood-and-mud houses, or raided them for supplies.

The quake killed about 87,000 people and left 3.5 million homeless in northwestern Pakistan and its portion of Kashmir, a territory also claimed by neighboring India.

Like Maidan, many affected areas are unreachable by road, even during summer.

Residents say the village, about 6,890 feet high, began getting aid two months after the quake.

They say they depend on U.N. helicopter food deliveries, and have just a little yogurt and maize left. They have also started slaughtering livestock, a prized asset, to survive.

Weather affects chopper deliveries, which were suspended when three days of heavy snowstorms struck around Jan. 1. But even a possible a supply halt won't budge Maidan's remaining residents.

Majid Khan, 22, who has worked as a driver in major city of Karachi, said he had only about 3,000 rupees (US$50) in savings, but would not leave his family home for fear it will be taken over.

"I'm not going anywhere until all my money and food run out," he said.

Villagers also lack warm clothes and sturdy footwear. As soon as the sun comes out, children, constantly coughing and sneezing as they wade through 3-foot-deep snow, try vainly to dry their shoes and socks.

"We still see many children who are not even adequately dressed, with sometimes only sandals to wear on their feet," said Pete Sykes, Pakistan emergency program manager for relief agency Save The Children.

Saleem Khan, the village elder, said about 30 children have died from the weather since Oct. 8. His statement could not immediately be verified.


The village has no doctor, and Khan said the closest person to a medic who'd visited in the past three months was a World Food Program nutritionist. It is an eight-hour walk to the nearest road, and two-day hike to the nearest medical facility.

But Maidan's people will stay, said Saleem Khan, 33.

"We have had no medicines from the start," he said. "If we have any (medical) emergencies, we have a problem ... but we will never leave."

Land-grab fears have surfaced elsewhere in the quake zone, relief workers say.

"One widow left her house for a day, came back and found her brother-in-law had taken over her home after the earthquake, so she was left out in the open," said World Food Program operations manager Keith Ursel. "This is a major reason why people don't want to go."

Health workers expect fatalities from cold-related diseases like pneumonia, anecdotal reports suggest dozens of children already have died, but Pakistani officials say enough shelter and supplies are in place to prevent a "second wave" of deaths.

Senior U.N. aid officials are more circumspect, saying nobody can predict the weather's impact. But they are backing away from dire warnings in the immediate aftermath of the disaster when the world body's humanitarian chief Jan Egeland said tens of thousands more could die without more aid.

Jan Vandemoortele, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Pakistan, said there was now the capacity; dozens of helicopters, scores of clinics and thousands of tons of food stocks, to keep people alive through the crisis, so long as the weather periodically cleared to let aid delivery and medics reach the vulnerable.

"On that basis, we will be able to prevent a second wave (of deaths)," he said.

A mild December allowed more time than expected to rush in aid for more than 3 million left homeless by the magnitude 7.6 quake that reached across a 12,000-square-mile swath of mountains, stretching from northwestern Pakistan eastward into India's portion of disputed Kashmir, where 1,350 people also died in the quake.

The new year started badly. For three days, driving rains tore through the valleys and up to 4 feet of snow fell on mountain villages, where temperatures dipped to 5 degrees.

"This weather is the nightmare we were expecting," said Larry Hollingworth, the U.N. deputy humanitarian coordinator. "People are now at their most vulnerable."