Lahore: Rescuers fear several hundred children sleeping outside on the Kalash Valley’s freezing slopes may die from exposure if they do not reach them soon with food, blankets and emergency shelter.

An estimated 500 children are among more than 5,000 villagers left homeless when their houses were destroyed in Monday’s earthquake, rescuers said told The Nation today.

They will be spending their second night without shelter today as landslides and heavy snowfall blocked the main access road from Chitral and thwarted attempts to rescue them.

Rescuers from religious charities reported similar concerns for villagers in Ramboor, Booni, Garm Chashma and some parts of FATA and said it was critical that relief reaches them in the next six to eight hours.

Hafiz Abdur Rauf, who is leading the Falah-e-Insanyat Foundation’s 2,000 rescue volunteers, said the people of Kalash Valley were desperate for immediate relief but faced another night exposed to the elements. The group had received a number of pleas for help from Kalash residents but has not been able to reach them.

“Roads are blocked and the temperature is freezing in Kalash areas. We fear the death toll could climb in the coming days,” he said.

 “The Army is sending food and medicines on helicopters to the affected but they require help at a large level,” he added.

Rauf, who worked in the area during the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, said so far 300 people have been found critically injured in nearby hospitals in Bat Khel, Temergarah, Lady Reading Peshawar, and Saidu Sharif Mingora.

Their concerns were echoed by UNICEF which said it feared children displaced from their homes and living without shelter were most at risk.

“We are extremely concerned for the safety and wellbeing of children, who are already the most at risk in any disaster and are now in danger of succumbing to the elements as temperatures plummet,” said UNICEF’s regional director for South Asia, Karin Hulshof.

Efforts to reach them in time, however, have so far been slow. By Tuesday night the Frontier Works Organisation had cleared large sections of the key Dir-Chitral and  Gilgit to Shandur highways but had yet to make headway with the main entry road to the Kalash Valley.

The Army has focused on clearing landslides from the main Karakoram Highway which has opened access to major cities, but remote areas off the main highway remain out of reach.

“We are assessing damages, rehabilitating major roads and carrying out relief activities in affected areas. Two helicopters are flying each in Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhawa,” Director General Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) Lt Gen Asim Bajwa said.

Shaukat Awan, a meteorologist who has worked throughout the affected area said only the army is equipped to mount rescue operations in its extreme terrain and harsh weather conditions. “Army helicopters can operate in hilly areas even during rains and snowfall. Army men acquainted with the area can reach strangled people with food and relief goods. They can go on foot or transport goods on mule or donkeys,” he said.

Charity rescuers however said the Army had not provided sufficient resources to meet the needs of quake affected. It is due to the fact that the area is large and troops deployment for relief work is not sufficient.

“The Army is opening the roads but the process is slow and affected areas are so vast. The people need immediate relief. Army itself doing rescue work in the belt but the need is higher,” said a rescue worker from Al-Khidmat Foundation, the charitable wing of the Jamat-i-Islami party.

Some relief workers raised concern for those areas hit by the earthquake close to the FATA-Afghanistan border where the Army has been carrying out anti-terrorist operations and itself had blocked some routes for security purposes.