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As winter weather sweeps into the Himalayan Mountains, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees talks about the plight of people made homeless by the Oct. 8 earthquake.
Two months after a deadly earthquake in Pakistan killed 87,000 people, dropping temperatures there have fueled fresh concern about the potential for a new wave of casualties.
Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, just returned from touring the earthquake region and is here to update us on the situation there.
I guess the best way to start with you is to ask you to describe for us what you saw on the ground.
Well, first of all, it's something I cannot describe because it was really such devastation. There are no words to describe it. I remember one place Balakot, in which a large number of people died. The buildings just crumbled and everybody was down below, and everybody was dying. So it's just really terrible.
And now there is a huge effort of the Pakistani authority and the international community trying to help these people to survive the winter.
The crucial question is to make them survive the winter and then to lay the foundations for the reconstruction and rebuilding, not only the infrastructure, the schools, the houses, but their lives, that is the most important.
You mentioned Balakot, where else did you go on your trip?
Well, I went, of course, to the capital, Kashmir, Muzaffarabad, and to several other places whose names I can't remember because there were small villages. But I've seen a lot of devastation.
And is there any way — you say you can't find the words — is there anything you can compare it to that would help for people who have never seen it with their own eyes?
No. I was prime minister in Portugal when there was an earthquake and a few hundred people died; there's nothing comparable to all the destruction. It's terrible. And then you see small valleys, mountains, and everything destroyed up in the mountains, and people living in extremely difficult conditions. That's really appalling.
As you try to categorize what the major concerns are that you have about what happens as winter approaches, as you talked, let's try to break them down one at a time. Reconstruction issues: Are we at the point yet where we can talk about extensive reconstruction?
I think it's important that even relief bears in mind reconstruction. And one of the reasons many people do not want to leave home even the home is no longer there but they want to settle close to their properties is because they are reconstruction-minded, and that is something very positive that should be encouraged.
Of course, in some circumstances it's not possible. But many of the things that are necessary for the relief operations will then be used for reconstruction and I think it's important that the two things go hand in hand.
But the crucial, crucial objective now is to make sure people will survive during this winter, and it is very important for the people still in the upper valleys where shelter has been provided, but where everybody is concerned because of the extreme hardship that they have to face in the winter in those upper valleys, many will come down, I believe, and then in the lower valley, we have some organized camps. We have 20 organized camps, in which we ourselves are present.
But we have more than 500 spontaneous camps, and the crucial thing now is to support those camps to make sure that they provide to the people the minimum conditions for them to survive the winter.
When you say "camps," are you talking about camps of tents, camps of rude construction —
— tents. One of the concerns, of course, in the mountains is to have the so-called single dry room for a family, a single room to make sure that people can, in the worst hours of the day and especially when it is snowing, can really be protected.
So right now, most of the people you're talking about are still outdoors; technically, they're not indoors yet?
Oh, of course, everything has been destroyed. Almost everything has been destroyed. Now, the winterization of the tents is crucial –
— because those tents were not meant for Pakistan.
We have emptied our warehouses all over the world, and we have with NATO a very important airlift operation, UNHCR and NATO; that airlift operation just brought in more than 2,000 tons of equipment, but those equipments were not sought for disaster in winter. They were just there.
So now we need to winterize the tents and to make sure that everybody, as I said, can go through the winter.
You said 20 camps are now up and operating?
Twenty formal camps. But then you have more than 500 spontaneous camps.
And how many people are we talking about who need to be sheltered?
We are talking about in the camps more than 150,000 people.
And where were they coming from?
They were coming from, well, most of them from the villages or the towns around, and some of them are already coming from the mountains.
And we can expect in the next few weeks to have some tens of thousands maybe coming from the mountains into these camps that have been prepared or will then be enlarged.
As winter begins, is there any evidence yet of disease or any other kind of casualties that are — kind of a secondary wave of quake casualties?
We have to be humble in one side because, as I mention, the tragedy is so immense, the problems are so overwhelming that really nobody can guarantee we'll be able to handle everything. So I'm afraid something might happen.
But what I could see, really, was a total commitment of the Pakistani army, of the local authorities, of the different U.N. agencies, of the NGO's, everybody hand in hand doing their best.
Sometimes coordination was not perfect. Sometimes things were not being done in the best possible way. It's a very difficult thing, but everybody was really working in the best spirit to make sure that we could really provide help to those in need.
There have been some concerns, apparently, that some of these generous international pledges are for long-term reconstruction, not for what is happening right now. What can you tell us about that?
I think that situation has improved, but the most important thing is that the pledges materialize, and that is done as soon as possible.
What kind of pledges are necessary at this point?
At the present moment it's basically the support of the relief operations which are taking place, and to make sure they are sustained during the winter, and then of course the huge effort of reconstruction, but according to our estimations, the amount of money pledged for reconstruction corresponds more or less to the needs, and the Pakistani authorities were quite happy with that.
Have rich —
The crucial moment is now.
Have rich countries like the United States and Great Britain stepped up to the plate?
Well, many countries, not only the developed world, also countries in the — many countries have done so. Of course in the beginning we were all slow. Agencies have been slow in getting to the ground.
Countries have been slow in giving financial support, but I would say that's also natural because we were all, to a certain extent, overwhelmed with the tragedy.
Your portfolio is to deal with refugees. How does this fall into that?
First of all, Pakistan is a country that has been extremely generous, receiving refugees from Afghanistan. They peaked with about six million; there are still about three million refugees in Pakistan, and we are very active in Pakistan and they are very happy supporting those refugees in Pakistan.
Now, how could we refuse to support the Pakistani people in this occasion, when they have been helping us to protect refugees for decades? It would be inconceivable.
It is our obligation; I think we have done it. As I said, we have emptied all warehouses all over the world. We have engaged in a major airlift with NATO. We are now very active at the field, together with the U.N. family, and many other international organizations and the local authorities.
And I think it's our duty also to correspond to that generosity and that solidarity the Pakistanis have had with the Afghans during, as I said, the last decades.
And finally, you know, here in the United States we have been watching what happened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and even people there have been concerned about donor fatigue in a much smaller catastrophe that occurred here.
Is there any sense that there is international donor fatigue, or people are just forgetting what happened in Pakistan?
Well, I think I'm going to be very frank. Money goes with television. Whenever there is a big event that has huge coverage in television, people get a strong feeling about it, and then the donor countries come, maybe a little bit late sometimes, maybe not enough.
The problem is not donor fatigue. The problem is donor diversion because much of the money that has been going into Pakistan now has been diverted from relief programs in different parts of the world.
For instance, we are extremely under funded in programs to return refugees in Africa, in Burundi, for instance, to protect refugees in Chad, so that is also one of the problems is that when there is something that is under the spotlight, there is support.
But many of the crises in this world, many of the people suffering in this world are suffering where the television is not there and where the public opinion is not aware of the fact, and where international community sometimes tend to forget, and this is a tragic scene.
Commissioner Antonio Guterres, thank you very much.
Thank you very much.
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