Pakistani families blame government for hill station nightmare
ISLAMABAD: A vacation trip to the Pakistani mountainous town of Murree to see winter snowfall turned into a nightmare for Muhammad Bilal on Friday.
Bilal, 21, was among tens of thousands of visitors who had gathered in Murree to see unusually heavy snowfall and found themselves stuck in a major traffic jam on snow-covered roads.
At around 4 p.m. Bilal, from Mardan in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, called his family and said his group, which consisted of him, two parents and a friend, were returning home due to the falls. unmanageable snow. On another 9 p.m. call, Bilal told his family their car was stuck in a traffic jam.
“His last words were that they would call back as soon as the road opened,” Muhammad Ghafoor, Bilal’s father, told Arab News by phone from his hometown of Katlang. On Saturday morning, when Bilal’s mother called his cell phone to find out where he was, a stranger came to tell him that her son had been found dead in his car.
At least 22 people died in Murree in freezing temperatures on Friday evening. Police say some of the victims froze to death in their cars, while others died of suffocation after inhaling exhaust fumes in snow-covered vehicles.
“It was so shocking and unbelievable that my wife almost passed out,” Ghafoor said. “Then we called the numbers of the other people who were with Bilal on the trip and got the same response from another person… their bodies had been discovered after they had not responded to several hits on the windows. of the car.”
The Pakistani meteorological department had predicted heavy snowfall in Murree and the mountainous regions of Galiyat from January 6 to 9. Despite calls from authorities to postpone travel plans due to bad weather and roadblocks, tens of thousands of snow tourists have arrived in Murree, 64 km (40 miles) northeast of the capital Islamabad, in over the past two days.
The seaside resort, built by the British in the 19th century as a sanatorium for colonial troops, clings to the sides of steep hills and its narrow roads are blocked even in good weather.
Critics of the government say local authorities were ill-equipped to handle the annual influx of snow tourists, but were not preparing for an emergency amid unusually heavy snowfall.
They say that although authorities warned last weekend that too many vehicles were attempting to enter Murree, they failed to deter hordes of day trippers from climbing the mountain from the capital.
It was not until Saturday, after initial reports revealed that people may have died, that the administration began to clear the roads and begin rescue work. Troops were also called in to lend a hand.
The rescue operation was still underway Sunday afternoon. In a tweet on Saturday, Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has personally promoted tourism in Murree and the surrounding area, appeared to accuse tourists of neglect.
“Unprecedented snowfall and a stampede of people proceeding without checking the weather conditions caught the district administrator off guard,” Khan said on Twitter.
Ghafoor blamed the government. “We accept it as the will of Allah,” he said of his son’s death. “But the government should have warned tourists of the extreme weather conditions and closed the entrance to the hill station to avoid traffic jams.”
Zahoor Ahmed, whose cousin was married to another victim, Sohail Ahmed, echoed the sentiment. “We don’t blame anyone, but a quick response could have saved many lives,” he told Arab News. Like Bilal’s family, the Ahmeds learned of Sohail’s death because a stranger took his cell phone and informed them that he was found dead with three other people in a car.