x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Pakistanis try to build anew after their lives are washed away

For survivors of Pakistan's devastating monsoon floods, the initial danger may be over, but the struggle to find food and shelter goes on.

Chaman Gul, centre, and his extended family at the primary school camp.
Chaman Gul, centre, and his extended family at the primary school camp.

NOWSHERA // A small pickup truck arrives at the rusted blue front gate of a government-run primary school on the outskirts of the Pakistani city of Nowshera. Two men climb out, escorted by two others - police officers with AK47s slung over their shoulders. They carry an enormous clear plastic bag of roti and two metre-tall silver pots of daal on to the sprawling building's veranda. A shout goes up among the 1,600 or so people inhabiting every inch of available space in the classrooms and on the long veranda - "Food has come! Food!"

They do not know who is providing the daal and bread. It certainly can't be the suddenly invisible army or government, many say. But the answer is irrelevant. Their next meal might not be for days. Such is the ongoing plight of many of the hundreds of thousands of people in Nowshera, who were forced to flee their homes nine days ago as monsoon rains turned the nearby Kabul river into walls of water. As the focus of international aid and an already thinly-stretched Pakistani government turns towards Punjab and Sindh provinces, where flooding rivers are wreaking equal havoc, and to northern areas such as Swat and Malakand where the situation is worse, people near Peshawar are being left to manage their survival alone.

Men, women and children grab empty pots, plastic buckets and cups and run towards the food. They jostle and argue, forming a scrum around the volunteers serving them. Men push their way to the front leaving elderly women, young children and the injured to watch in anger. The police officers try to keep order but in this unofficial camp, one of many in the area, they can do little to control the hungry. By the end, only half of the families have managed to salvage a bowl of daal and a few rotis.

In one darkened classroom, an extended family of around 20 from Nowshera Kalaan, a low- lying part of the city where 400,000 once lived, share a large bowl of daal. A man with a bandaged leg sits against a wall, a blackboard bearing the traces from last year's maths lesson directly above him. Sara Bibi, 20, sits cross-legged with her sick two-month-old son. The incision from her caesarian section has become infected from wading through chest-deep flood water. There are no doctors at the camp. "We walked over 4km to get here on Wednesday. There was no warning from anyone, and the water came so fast. We had no time to take anything with us," she says.

Her cousin Aqueela Bibi, 25, looks furiously at the bowl of daal. "Whenever food comes, there is chaos. The women are told to stay in their room and that it will be brought to them. But it never comes." The people in this camp were already living in poverty, on the edge of destitution, before disaster struck. The flood took with it what little they had - livelihoods, houses, possessions and even family members. With Ramadan only days away, even the prospect of a humble Eid celebration is non-existent.

Fareeda Bibi, 28, lived with her husband and four children in a thatched hut in the village of Dagi Khel, near Nowshera Kalaan. While her daughter Neelam, aged eight, holds her youngest son, she explains her fears for the future. A month ago, she and her husband bought two buffalo worth Rs200,000 (Dh8,570) on credit. The livestock were killed in last week's flood, and their house and all of their possessions were destroyed. "The landlord will demand that we pay the money we owe him [for the buffalo and house] or he will kick us off of the land," she says. "How will we pay?"

The flood has caused hundreds of similar small tragedies as unstable and informal housing, ill-equipped to survive such disasters, are destroyed and families with insecure incomes fail to weather the devastation. Outside under the glare of the sun, children sit on classroom desks and play with the few items left over from the school year. Many have worn the same clothes for a week, and some still have hair matted with mud, unable to find any water to bathe in. One boy, who looks to be five years old, sits alone by the boundary wall, staring, lost in his thoughts. The entire perimeter of the white-washed wall is draped in colourful drying clothes and blankets. Beyond the wall a funeral procession of hundreds of men moves towards a nearby graveyard: a local 14-year-old girl was electrocuted earlier in the day as she turned on a water-logged electric water pump when the power briefly returned.

In spite of their deprivations, some of the camp's displaced residents display the trademark Pashtun generosity. Chaman Gul, in his 50s, is living in a classroom with his wife and children and 12 other members of his family. He offers me a roti and insists that I sit and eat with them. But while the camp relies on Islamic charities and private citizens for their survival, forces both local and national have sought to exploit their suffering, even in these early days of hardship.

Taj Begum, Mr Gul's wife, says some people unaffected by the floods, residents of the ASC colony, the neighbourhdd in which the primary school lies, and which sits on high ground, come into the school compound whenever lorries arrive to deliver supplies. Others in the camp point to a young woman who is dressed in clean clothes and wearing jewellery. She is sitting alone on a bench, talking on a mobile phone. Mohammed Ali, a middle-aged merchant from Nowshera who is visiting the camp, says that she works for a "local mafia" and informs them of the goings on at the camp, especially when supplies arrive.

The outspoken Aqueela describes what happens when lorries have come to deliver biscuits, milk and water. "The bhai log [gangsters] come and take the things for themselves and try to sell them to us." Asif Ali Zardari, the president of Pakistan, left for an official trip to Europe as the flooding began, a fact most people in Nowshera and Charsadda, another badly-affected city, note with disgust when asked about the government's response to the disaster. Mr Zardari's political rivals are seeking to exploit the unpopular decision. On Thursday, Nawaz Sharif, the president's arch-rival, visited the camp on a tour of the area and promised to send 15 lorry loads of supplies. Healthy-looking young men in the camp demanded that residents say they had received food from Mr Sharif when asked who had been sending supplies.

Najmeenah Bibi, 33, originally from Mardan, whose husband died last year, is living with one of her three daughters. She fears the other two may be dead. "When the water came, it was so fast. I just grabbed the youngest one, who was next to me and ran," she says. As tears stream down her face, she says: "I don't know if they are OK; I pray that they are with relatives." But the camp also holds stories of hope. Fareeda Bibi, whose buffalo died in the flood, also feared she had lost her four children. For a week her husband walked from camp to camp looking for their two sons and two daughters, but could not find them. Then after a week, a neighbour who fled to a camp in the nearby city of Risalpur, recognised the four children and brought them to the Nowshera camp where they were reunited with Fareeda. "I thought I might have lost them," she says, her duputta wrapped around her nose and mouth, but with tears in her eyes. "I thank Allah that they were found. They are my whole universe."

@Email:tkhan@thenational.ae