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South Asia quake: Death in the mountains

From Till Mayer for CNN

Till Mayer is a journalist working for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Pakistan. He contributed this story for CNN.com from one of the areas hardest hit by the South Asia earthquake.

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A man sits on the roof of a ruined school watching the clear-up effort

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BALAKOT, Pakistan (CNN) -- Another spray can of air freshener is tossed into a growing pile amid broken bricks and bent steel. The rescue workers get a respite from the smell of death, but only for seconds.

Three men battle with hammers and a blow torch to break through collapsed walls, working like miners to tunnel down.

Before the October 8 earthquake, this site in Balakot, northwestern Pakistan, was a solid two-story house -- a family home. Now a hand protrudes from the debris and these exhausted, sweat-streaked men will take hours to recover the body.

Trucks roar by, bringing in more relief supplies. Their traditional bright, decorative designs look out of place amid the desolation. Among the convoy are supplies from the Pakistan Red Crescent Society carrying food, blankets and tents.

A farmer herding two cows at the edge of the street watches the trucks rumble by.

Urgent needs

"We urgently need tents. Nothing is left from my house. At least I could save my cows but now my family needs a roof over their heads.

"In a few weeks, winter will come here to the mountains. I do not know what should we do, when the snow falls," says the bearded farmer.

The Pakistan Red Crescent has distributed more than 1,000 tents to date, while the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is currently mobilizing 35,000 tents and requesting thousands more.

The quake has claimed a terrible toll on the city of Balakot, killing an estimated 7,000 people out of a population of 30,000.

But the impact stretches far beyond the town limits and into the mountains where numerous villages have been cut off for days. Across Pakistan, more than 38,000 people have died, according to the United Nations, and the toll keeps rising.

At the edge of the city, army helicopters whip up a dust storm. The wounded wait on home-made stretchers to be air lifted.

A father tries to calm his eight-year-old daughter. Her eyes are wide and full of fear. She has a bandage on her wounded head, but has received only the most basic level of first aid.

She is one of many who need to be moved to where proper medical attention can be provided. The local district hospital was flattened in the quake like so many other medical facilities.

Emergency medical assistance is one of the response priorities of the IFRC, and a French Red Cross emergency response unit has arrived in Balakot.

It is establishing a basic health care facility which will have the capacity to treat 1,000 people for three months.

The IFRC already has on the ground supplies for five such teams, provided by the German Red Cross, but more supplies are urgently needed.

Virginie Roiron is in Balakot as a member of an IFRC assessment team. She watches on as the wounded are airlifted.

'Risk of more deaths'

"There are so many things to do. I am also thinking about the earthquake survivors in the mountains who are cut off from the aid delivered in the valley. Even with helicopters it is sometimes impossible to bring them help", she says.

The work of the IFRC assessment team is vital to the ongoing relief effort. Its early conclusions are that the affected people will be 100 percent reliant on emergency assistance for the next six months. There is an enormous risk of many more deaths if the vulnerable do not get sufficient help through the winter.

Mohammad Nisar sits on the roof of a smashed school. With tired eyes he watches as trucks pass by carrying troops to conduct clean-up and clearance work. Local people carry what remains of their possessions and others carrying their dead. The main road of Balakot reflects broken dreams and buried hopes.

"Still I can not believe what happened. I do not know if it makes any sense to stay in this destroyed place. My niece was buried alive in this school. It is hard to stand the pain when I think about her," says the 46-year-old.

An open school book lies nearby in the dust. "This is my house," is written in English on the open page. Many in Balakot face a harsh winter with no house and their needs are urgent and ongoing. This is a disaster for the long-haul.

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