Most of their homes were destroyed in the 8 October earthquake that took the lives of more than 73,000 people. But help has arrived for the survivors and they, like people across the earthquake zone, are cautiously confident they can cope.

Mohammed Amin Shah, who has patched together a corner of his ruined farmhouse with donated corrugated iron, plastic sheets and salvaged pieces of timber, says: "Our forefathers lived in small houses like this."

On Saturday, snow covered the floor of a pine forest just above Gantar village, in the North West Frontier Province, and lay in crusty patches in fields. Puddles on the dirt track were iced over.

Shah and other village men were wearing thin blankets, pulled up to cover their heads and over their clothes. A boy carried a barefoot baby, not bothered by the cold at 7000ft (2300m) above sea level.

"We have wood for fire and the army has given us rations, we should have no problem," Shah says, but added that he needed more corrugated iron to build a better home.

Across the region where the 7.6-magnitude earthquake struck, there is some optimism that cold, hunger and disease are not going to kill the three million survivors.

Against all odds

The Pakistani army, international aid agencies and private relief groups have been working closely on the race to help. They think they are winning, but only just.

Men were using blankets to
keep out the cold

Andrew Macleod, head of the UN relief operations, said: "We're confident that the basics have been done, but we can't be over-confident. We can't get complacent."

Barring the unexpected - another major earthquake, an exceptionally cold winter or funds drying up - a second disaster should be averted, Macleod said in Muzaffarabad, the hard-hit capital of Pakistani Kashmir.

"If things keep going the way they are, then we're going to make it through the winter, just."

Dangerous shortage

Aftershocks still rattle people's nerves, but the weather has been dry. Rubble is being cleared in the towns, and markets are bustling and well-stocked.

Tents dot the landscape - single ones in gardens, clusters in terraced fields, and sprawling tent camps along main roads, rivers and on the floors of steep, winter-brown valleys.

Aid trucks rumble through the mountains day and night, inching their way into the valleys. Helicopters with supplies suspended beneath them rattle through the hazy sky. But no one is saying the job is done.

Ongoing shortages

In the Allai valley, aid workers, the military and villagers say there is a dangerous shortage of corrugated iron sheets for shelters. Supplies are not arriving fast enough, and thousands of families are waiting.

Children are at the greatest risk
from disease and cold weather

There may be remote settlements that have slipped through the net, but many people say they have enough food, shelter and medical care to see them through the winter.

Lieutenant-Colonel Zakeer Ahmed Abassi, the army commander of relief operations in the valley, where about 120,000 people live, said things were under control.

Sitting in a tent by a compound of the Care International aid agency in the town of Banna, Abassi said snow would cut communities off but they would have sufficient shelter and food to sustain them.

"I'm quite hopeful that people will be able to brave the situation," he said.

With field hospitals and clinics throughout the disaster zone, many poor communities are getting better medical care now than before the disaster, relief workers say.

Army engineers have opened or rebuilt almost all roads, including the Neelum valley road in Pakistani Kashmir, large sections of which were swept away in landslides triggered by the earthquake. Fresh landslides are cleared quickly.

Though the snow held off through December, wet weather could halt air operations and cause more landslides across the mountains, shutting down road operations and presenting the relief operation with its first big test.