Angelina Jolie peered through the helicopter window at mile after mile of destroyed houses, and at the meagre possessions of poor Pakistanis buried in rubble strewn down the mountain sides.
“You fly over the area and you can’t believe it,” said Jolie during her three-day visit for the UN refugee agency that ended on Saturday. “No one sitting at home has any idea what this really looks like. It is unbelievable. For 20 minutes flying we just saw one house after another broken. There is nothing standing.”
The Goodwill Ambassador came to see first-hand the impact of the October 8 earthquake that killed at least 73,000 people and left tens of thousands homeless in one of the poorest areas of a generally impoverished country. From high-altitude villages where assistance is just arriving, to the almost totally destroyed city of Balakot, to the hospital in Islamabad where thousands of injured were treated, she heard from survivors about the horror of the earthquake and their fears for the future.
UNHCR, mandated to protect refugees, is not normally involved in natural disasters. But for the second time in a year - this earthquake and the tsunami that devastated the coasts of south and south-east Asia last December - the UN refugee agency found itself at the centre of an overwhelming humanitarian crisis.
As in Sri Lanka, where UNHCR has long been active, the agency has been in Pakistan for three decades assisting Afghan refugees. Within hours of the earthquake, UNHCR had opened its warehouses and began distributing tents, blankets and plastic sheeting to the victims of the earthquake.
“It is an obligation to be here and to help the people of Pakistan, and to stand by them at this time after having seen them do so much for the Afghan people over the years,” Jolie told reporters at a joint news conference with UNHCR High Commissioner António Guterres on Friday in Islamabad. Guterres was in the middle of a major tour of the region, and had also visited the devastated earthquake zone the previous day.
“I’m sorry it’s something we have to do. I’m sorry we’re in this situation, but I am so glad to be here for them,” said Jolie, whose two previous visits to Pakistan had been to meet Afghan refugees.
The UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador learned first-hand that this earthquake presents extreme challenges requiring sustained assistance - the initial disaster could be followed by a second as the harsh winter begins to grip the Himalayan slopes where people lost their houses.
A visit to Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir where thousands died, had to be cut short on Saturday as clouds began to obscure the surrounding peaks and prevent flights. It was likely to bring snow to the area Jolie had visited earlier in the day, a remote community at Jabel Sharoon in the Neelum Valley, located at an altitude of around 2,000 metres.
Jolie and fellow actor Brad Pitt, jointly making the UNHCR-facilitated tour, had flown on board Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) helicopters that were carrying food into the isolated mountain-side strewn with the wreckage of wooden houses. AKF, an international aid and development organization which has been present in this part of Pakistan for many years, has worked closely with UNHCR in carrying aid into the mountains and evacuating thousands of injured.
“There are many people who are in the highest altitudes who for many reasons do not want to move - are afraid of losing their property and are used to that life - and if they don’t leave they will try to rebuild soon,” Jolie said. “I don’t know if that is possible ... some of the people are trying to rebuild now, but I do think it is an emergency effort just to survive.”
As she talked with survivors at Jabel Sharoon, a frigid wind was already sweeping off mountains dusted with snow. Those who have had to give up the struggle to stay through the winter are making their way down the slopes to relief camps. Some are moving into spontaneous clusters of tents, a potential health problem, but others are moving to large, well-equipped camps set up by the Pakistan authorities with UNHCR assistance.
UNHCR, which has decades of accumulated expertise caring for refugee influxes around the world, has been tasked by the UN with providing guidance on building and maintaining these temporary camps for survivors.
Jolie visited the Ghari Habibullah camp, which was erected by the Pakistani army, and was relieved to hear from residents that, while still traumatized, they now felt secure as the winter approaches. The camp commander reported a steady, continuing flow of survivors from the high valleys.
She also visited the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) in Islamabad, which was the key medical facility in the weeks following the earthquake, and talked with children - many of them amputees - who require continuing assistance. At one point thousands of patients had overflowed the wards and were being treated in the corridors.
After hearing that the hospital was trying to raise funds to buy 40 specialized beds for patients who are paralyzed from spinal injuries suffered in the earthquake, Brad Pitt immediately offered to provide all of them - a donation worth more than US$100,000.
Jolie emphasized that the needs of survivors, especially with winter starting to close in on the Himalayas, are immense and urgent - international assistance has to continue and pledges made by governments have to be honoured.
“This is not just one disaster that has happened,” she said. “There is another disaster that could happen very soon if there is not enough coordination and money on the ground as soon as possible.”