On Oct. 8, violent death came to Kala Dhaka, in spades. A 7.6-magnitude earthquake slammed into the Himalayas. Entire villages were devastated; in an instant, stone houses turned into burial mounds. The Indus river, flowing at the bottom of the valleys, recalls one tribal elder, Mohammed Said, "looked like water boiling inside a tea kettle."
The temblor took about 55,000 lives and has left as many as 3 million people homeless. Relief efforts have been severely hampered by the remoteness of many places hit by the quake, and by the lack of money for aid and assistance. The U.N. said last week that, with winter blizzards just weeks away, it urgently needed $550 million to avert a second wave of deaths from cold, yet had only received one-fifth of that.
In Kala Dhaka, the crisis is compounded by the suspicion local tribes have traditionally shown outsiders. Scores of villagers were killed and injured by the quake. Dozens, if not hundreds, of people lay dying, and for many residents, the closest medical attention meant carrying the injured for nine hours along trails that thread down a rocky cliff face to the Indus, where they might hail a passing boat. The tribes also needed blankets and tents. With their plight desperate, tribal elders sent word that they badly needed help.
When a UNICEF team decided to dispatch a flotilla of 11 boats up the Indus, loaded with relief supplies, I jumped at the chance to sail into these forbidden valleys. Even though the tribes had requested assistance, UNICEF project leader Tamur Mueenuddin, a tireless Pakistani doctor, wasn't sure what sort of reception his team would get. What little money Kala Dhaka's tribesmen scrape together, usually from selling opium, is spent on guns. Scenes flashed through my mind from the film Deliverance, in which Burt Reynolds and his rafting buddies are picked off by vengeful hillbillies.
We chugged up the blue-green Indus in an armada of gaily-painted boats, each powered by belching tractor engines. Mueenuddin stood in the prow of his boat like a wavy-haired admiral. Occasionally he consulted his laptop; the Kala Dhaka elders huddled around in awe as though it were a glowing magic tablet. To Mueenuddin, this was "Operation Congo" because, he said, "We're going into the heart of darkness."
Not all Kala Dhaka tribesmen are ignorant of the world beyond their towering peaks. Some have worked as laborers in Karachi's port. Others, stirred up by preachers, took their guns and crossed into Afghanistan after 9/11 to join the Taliban fighting American troops. In the 19th century, they repeatedly drove back British forces from the Indus. These tribes were known to be as fanatical as they were fierce, but they do like to joke around. "Would you like to see your President Boosh?" asks tribesman Tariq Angar as he drags over a white-bearded elder with a mean squint. Lose the beard and, sure enough, he did look like Dubya around the pale eyes. Angar laughed, but the elder scowled; he wasn't pleased at being likened to the arch-infidel.
Each Kala Dhaka tribe is governed by a jirga, or council of elders, which rules on land disputes, feuds, and matters of clan honor and revenge. As our flotilla pulled up to the riverbank, a jirga and their gunmen were on hand to welcome Mueenuddin. He was escorted up to an ancient shade tree beside a mosque. This was a crucial moment: would the elders allow us to sail upriver, or would they grab all the aid for themselves? Mueenuddin made his case eloquently. A few supplies were dropped off, and I saw a line of men like ants hefting 30-kg sacks of flour up a near-vertical mountain. Said Mueenuddin: "I told them we didn't have many supplies, and this had to go to the most needy—the women and children. The jirga understood."
Not everyone has been so helpful. In supposedly more civilized areas around the towns of Muzaffarabad and Balakot, gangs of thugs attacked aid convoys, stealing supplies for themselves while pushing the injured, women and children aside. In Kala Dhaka, UNICEF dropped off tents for 1,000 families, 2,000 blankets, 1,000 sweaters, 10 tons of wheat, five tons of lentils and five tons of cooking oil—the oil a gift of the U.S., read the labels on boxes. For once, the Kala Dhaka tribes greeted outsiders with grateful smiles—not gunfire.