Four months after the devastating South Asian earthquake, more than 300,000 survivors still depend on United Nations airlifts for lifesaving food and supplies. The flights, sometimes more than 100 a day, are a critical lifeline for thousands of remote mountain villages in the Himalayan quake zone. But U.N. officials say that without fresh donations they may be forced to scale back the operation. VOA's Benjamin Sand visited Zeff Kapoor, a village in the Himalayas, where residents warned that without the relief flights they may not survive the region's harsh winter.
The villagers of Zeff Kapoor start a small fire near where they want the helicopter to land.
The rising smoke can help the chopper pilot anticipate wind conditions in the narrow Himalayan valley.
The tiny hamlet is perched midway up an imposing snow-capped mountain, almost 17 hundred meters above sea level.
As the fire grows the men wait, straining to hear the distinctive hum of the approaching U.N. helicopter.
Four months after a massive earthquake nearly flattened the village and left it cut off from the rest of the world, their food is running out. Abdul Shakur says the U.N. aid airlift is their only hope to survive the winter.
Without the helicopters, he says, we would all be dead.
The nearest market town is more than nine hours walk away and local food supplies are almost exhausted.
Usman Nasir coordinates the U.N. World Food Program's Quake Jumper team, a group of experienced mountaineers who scout remote locations for the aid flights.
On the ground in Zeff Kapoor, he says the village is virtually sealed off until spring, almost two months away. Ice and snow have blocked mountain passes and landslides have buried the footpaths that connect the remote Himalayan villages.
"That's why they do not move at all. They'll stay put here at whatever condition but they do not move. It's too risky for them," he said.
Whatever comes in, he says, can only come by air. If it does make it, this day's flight will deliver enough flour, beans and cooking oil to last the village for at least another month.
Last October's earthquake killed at least 70,000 people, most of them in Pakistan, and left three million others homeless.
The World Food Program is feeding more than a million of them, nearly a third in villages like this one, completely dependent on relief flights for food.
To ship the supplies, the W.F.P. maintains its own fleet of 20 helicopters, with six others provided by the United States and Germany.
It is the U.N.'s largest and most complex humanitarian airlift, providing more food, to more isolated communities, than ever before.
It is also one of its most expensive. Each chopper costs around $7,000 an hour to operate and so far the project has cost $50 million.
And now the funding is running out. In the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, Philip Clarke, the W.F.P.'s special envoy to Pakistan, says the agency needs at least $13 million to avoid a drastic cut in operations in just a few weeks.
"If we don't get the 13 million at the end of February, first week of March, that's it, we have to stop," he explained.
That money would carry the effort through the end of the winter. Clarke says the W.F.P also is seeking funding to extend the aid flights through the end of the year.
Even after the emergency phase winds down next month, he says that many of the more isolated villages will still require air support.
Recent U.N. surveys suggest the mountain roads are severely damaged. Small cracks are appearing in most of the dirt tracks and Clarke says they can not safely support cars or trucks.
"Now we are realizing that the roads are destroyed in such a way that it would be impossible for the people to carry the construction materials and all the seeds and fertilizer for spring sowing up in the hills," he said.
If it does not come by air, he says the villagers simply will not be able get the supplies needed to rebuild their communities.
But back in Zeff Kapoor, the summer and reconstruction remain a long way off. For now, the priority remains making sure their families have enough food for the next few weeks.
And finally, just before noon, the helicopter sweeps across the valley floor. As soon as it lands the men rush forward to help unload the cargo. The food will be distributed among the local families, each one getting enough basic supplies to last four to six weeks. Enough, says one village elder, to get them through the winter.