BALAKOT, Pakistan — All around this leveled town, thousands of pieces of clothing sit in great heaps, creating bright pockets of color amid fields of gray rubble. A checkered maroon sweater. A pair of blue jeans. A pink shirt. At first glance, the clothing appears to be a sad vestige of the thousands who perished in this mountain town. Instead, it is a testament to the living.

In what some Pakistanis are calling the greatest display of national unity in their country's 58-year-history, thousands of volunteers from across the country spontaneously collected vast amounts of food, clothing and medicine and rushed it to northern Pakistan following the severe earthquake of Oct. 8. The piles are the product of an impromptu grass-roots relief effort that Pakistanis say they have never seen before.

"It impressed me and it still impresses me," said Abdul Aziz Awan, a 56-year-old ophthalmologist who had suffered the anguish of sitting with his younger brother for three hours, while the brother slowly bled to death beneath the rubble here. "The amount of response that people have shown, I would say it matched the amount of destruction."

Aid officials say that the international response to the disaster has been woefully inadequate and that Pakistan lacks the resources to handle the relief effort on its own. But to an extent not seen in decades, the earthquake appears to have united the country, long divided along ethnic and sectarian lines.

Religious violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims has killed hundreds in the last five years. Dozens were killed during local elections in August and September. And two of the country's minority ethnic groups, Sindhis and Baluchis, continue to bitterly complain about the country's largest ethnic group, the Punjabis, who run the all-powerful army.

Yet, most of those divisions appeared to vanish in the face of a cataclysm that, at last count, had killed 51,000 Pakistanis. On Tuesday, trucks laden with donations from youth associations, religious groups, city governments and schoolchildren from across Pakistan arrived here to distribute donated aid. A handwritten banner strung across the grille of one truck arriving with aid seemed to capture the nationwide sense of responsibility toward the victims.

"In this hour of need," it declared, "please help your grief-stricken brothers with cash, sugar, flour, blankets and warm clothes."

Hundreds of miles south of the earthquake zone, in the southern port of city of Karachi, schoolchildren and families formed human chains to load donated goods into cargo planes. Dozens of doctors from the country's finest hospitals volunteered for duty in remote locales to set broken bones and dress infected wounds.

"We came to help these patients," said Zubair Ali, a 28-year-old surgeon who was one of 50 doctors from Karachi who flew north on a cargo plane. "We thought there were a lot of surgeries."

Even those of Pakistani heritage in the United States and Britain arrived in force.

"It's exhilarating," said Abad Rizvi, 25, a Pakistani-American doctor from Los Angeles who raised $10,000 in donations and is volunteering in a clinic here. "You feel like you're actually helping. They're so thankful."

Najam Sethi, the editor of The Daily News, one of Pakistan's leading newspapers, said he has never seen such unity in the country, which has been hobbled by military rule, corrupt politics, militant Islam and erratic economic growth.

"Given the normal cynicism of Pakistanis, something like this has never happened," he said. "I think the scale of the disaster is something that has touched everyone to the core."

On Friday, NATO officials in Brussels, Belgium, approved a plan to dispatch 500 to 1,000 soldiers, as well as four helicopters, to Pakistan to aid in relief operations, Agence France-Presse reported. The move came as the top U.N. aid official, Jan Egeland, criticized the international response and called on NATO to launch a huge helicopter airlift to aid an estimated 3 million Pakistanis left homeless by the earthquake. The aid group Oxfam, meanwhile, called on governments around the world to release their supplies of military tents to alleviate a shortage for earthquake survivors.

Umar Farooq, a 28-year-old hospital fundraiser from Lahore, about 200 miles to the south, said he and a friend decided to volunteer in Balakot after television news reports described stumbling government aid efforts.

He and other volunteers credited Pakistan's growing independent news media, particularly several new private cable television stations, with producing vivid coverage that motivated them to act. They questioned whether the state-run media, which enjoyed a monopoly until several years ago, would have disclosed the scope of the calamity.

"Before, nobody knew how bad the damage was," said Dr, Khurram Navid, a 27-year-old surgeon from Karachi.

Not all earthquake survivors welcomed the hordes of volunteers. Alam Gir, 25, a soldier who lives outside Balakot, said many Pakistanis came to this battered city to gawk at the dead.

He also accused volunteers of slowing the overall relief effort. Hundreds of trucks snarled traffic for hours and some volunteers simply tossed relief supplies off the trucks, sparking brawls among desperate survivors.

"They blocked the road," said Gir. "They impeded the activity."

Volunteers and Pakistani nonprofit groups said they acted to fill a void created by government inaction. Mian Irfan Yousuf, 31, a doctor working for the Edhi Foundation, said 25 Pakistani private organizations and four to five religious groups were at work in Balakot. "The government is doing nothing here," he said.

Mohammad Akbar, a beleaguered 35-year-old survivor, said he welcomed help from any source. On Tuesday, he was one of thousands of bereft men trudging through the shattered streets of Balakot in search of a truck carrying donated food and supplies. He marveled at the torrent of aid fellow Pakistanis poured into this city and said it buoyed him, physically and psychologically.

"This is like a support for us," he said. "After God, these people support us."