Dead take the last ride. This is the maxim the army and air force pilots are following as they ferry the countless injured from the 14 quake-ravaged villages of Teetwal in Tangdhar area of north Kashmir.
"The dead can wait their turn, it is the living who deserve the chance to survive," said Squadron Leader R K Sharma on his fifth sortie of the day to evacuate injured people from these villages that remained cut off by land even three days after the magnitude 7.6 tremblor triggered massive landslides snapping all road links to this hilly terrain.
Around 44,000 people live in these villages, where except for some army and Border Security Force personnel and the life saving Cheetah helicopters, none has been able to reach so far.
The villages presented a desolate eerie site from the air with hapless survivors looking upto the sky expectantly for the choppers against a backdrop of piles of rubble of their flattened houses.
A handful of army, BSF and Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel, who reached the villages on foot were shocked to see the plight of the villagers. "The people were huddled outside their homes in the open in silence," said Major Dogra who was among the first to reach these villages.
"We just made emergency helipads and then called in the helicopters to take the injured to hospitials. But we do not have the time to dig through the rubble to take the dead out. For us the top priority is to give life to the living," he said.
Brig S S Jog, the commander of Shakti Vijay brigade said that once the process of ferrying the injured to hospitals in Baramulla and Srinagar was completed, the army would send in teams of engineers to sift through the rubble to look for the dead.
Unprecedented air activity breaks the eerie silence, with army aviation, air force and lone BSF Chetaks and Cheetah helicopters forming a virtual mercy air bridge to connect these inaccessible villages.
A chopper lands and takes off every five minutes, transporting water, medicines, blankets and food for the survivors and on return ferrying the injured from these quake-marooned villages, which are situated just 25 to 30 km from Muzzaffarbad, the capital of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, the epicentre of Saturday's tremblor.
"As the area happens to be on the Line of Control, all links to these villages are fair-weather roads and the rumbling boulders and mudslides which followed the quake have completely erased the tracks for miles. It will take effort to
restore these," Brig Jog said.
"We have fetched specialist teams for the job," he said.
Little wonder that cut off in their hours of extreme grief, the villagers are resentful of the local adminstration officials not showing up.
Deputy Commissioner of the frontier district of Kupwara Abdul Majid Khanday and the Senior Superitendent of Police Sunil Dutt have been camping in nearby Tangdhar.
"We have organised relief convoys, but the snapped road links means we can't reach them," Khanday said as by daybreak he managed to get a jeep fitted with a loudspeaker to go round some of the villages and announce that the government would provide the affected people free rations for the month.
"You don't have to move out of your houses. We will get the rations and medicines to your doorstep," the loudspeaker blared, but with thousands of people roughing it out in the cold for fear of more shocks, there were few takers.
All eyes and ears were riveted to the uniformed men and the buzz of choppers, which have become mercy birds in the area literally.
"We have moved hundreds of tonnes of tentage, blankets, medicines and food packets," said Air Marshal A K Singh, air officer commanding-in-chief Western Air Command, who flew to Tangdhar to chalk out the logistics of relief distribution with the state adminstration.
But, with road links to these border villages still snapped, it appears that dead may still have to wait awhile for their last ride.