Usman Ahmad’s diaries
The small smattering of rain the previous night ensures a clement beginning to our journey south and the flood hit areas of South Punjab and Sindh. The cool bite of the air is a sublime luxury I will later look back at longingly as the days ahead unleash the fury of their white heat. But for now, I gaze only at the waving hand of my infant son, who has awoken at this unearthly hour to bid me adieu. As our Pajero draws away – I catch my final glimpse of him nestling on the doorstep – firm in his refusal not to go back inside. The sight makes me laugh and becomes my first memory of a trip I had wanted to make much earlier.
Together in the company of two colleagues, we leave to deliver specially prepared Eid ‘Gift Packs’ and other sundries to victims of the floods and assess the cost of the devastation, so that the fraught process of rebuilding so many shattered lives can begin. With almost 21 million people affected by the disaster, and vast swathes of the country still under water, the task at ahead will be long and arduous.
Our first point of call is the town of Muzaffargarh or ‘Fort of Muzaffar’; so called because the old town used to lie inside the walls of a fort built by Nawab Muzaffar Khan of Multan. Most of the flood water here has now receded and the first sign or indictor I see of any disaster is a group of tents sprawled on a dusty field on the periphery of the town. I would not describe it as a relief camp – because it isn’t one – more an ad hoc and haphazard shelter. The people there surround me as I take pictures and I am taken aback by the desperate enthusiasm that greets my arrival. They tell me that they have not been visited by anyone or offered much assistance– although once a week they do receive money to buy rations from a ‘bearded man’. There is also a water pump next to the camp. The mosque adjacent to them had initially allowed the victims to use its sanitary facilities. But today its gate is bolted shut. Apparently the charity of the believers barely lasted a week before it was exhausted. But still they are in a much better position than many of the people I will encounter. They are in tents and are not going hungry.
After meeting with some locals, who will act as our hosts, we proceed to the village of Biat Daryai. Even after such a great disaster – the hospitality of the villagers is impeccable. All its inhabitants come out to meet us and offer the customary chai pani. Most of the mudbrick homes were flattened in the deluge but the people here are a resilient bunch and they have already begun to rebuild their outer walls. At a distance I see two children take turns to sway on a rope swing; the light of the afternoon sun illuminating the leaves of the tree from which they dangle. It is a carefree scene redolent of happiness and bliss. They pause to inspect us – but not for too long – they have far more important things to do like and laugh and play. I think of my son and miss him. We unpack the van and begin to gather what we have so that it can be distributed. There is no clamoring or fighting over aid – in fact some of the village’s youngsters help us unload what we have brought. A list has been prepared of who needs what and in an orderly fashion each family comes forward to receive their goods when their name is called. One item has particularly caught my eye. The LifeStraw is a small plastic tube which filters water that is sucked through it. The water passes through a chamber filled with iodine beads that gets rid of any bacteria. It is captivating in its efficiency and simple genius. I feel guilty for wanting one myself but the brilliance of the contraption is alluring. Soon mosquito nets, rations, buckets etc have all been handed out – but an air of dissatisfaction lingers. Our effort seems insufficient. A sense of inadequacy will plague me throughout – whatever we do seems far too little.
We are on the road again this time headed towards Dera Ghazi Khan where we will spend the night. It is only now that the full force of the carnage begins to become apparent. As the road winds forward the ravaged landscape bludgeons my senses. Water stands on both sides of the highway and fields of crops lie devastated. Every few miles or so there are people camped on the side of the road, some in tents, but most in shelters made of twigs and their household items. Their eyes are vigilant but spare and desolate as though shorn of all hope. There is nothing or no-one to help them; no-one that I can see anyway. Where are the white four X4’s, the foreign aid agencies, the NGO’s and more tellingly the Pakistani authorities? The only time we pass the army is when crossing a hastily constructed bridge on a patch of the road which has born a particular brunt of the flood’s fury. The water seems as endless as time and the scale of everything is biblical. I am reminded of Noah and his ark and how the modern world derides the story as a fairytale. I however have become even more firmly convinced of its veracity than ever before.
Dera Ghazi Khan like so many Pakistani cities is a delicate maze of narrow passages and alleyways congested and bursting with life. Old men chewing paan and discussing the travails of the world sit on charpais which block the road. There is a weary tenderness to their evening mehfil – but still our path is blocked so we blow our horns and have them shunted aside. We visit a rented house which is being used as a makeshift warehouse and have a meeting in the courtyard late into the night discussing the plans for tomorrow and further ahead. So many factors need to be considered before any reconstruction can begin; the path of the river, the chance of future floods, the location of homes and shops and much else besides.
It is now ten o clock and our first meal since breakfast is served. A hot plate of aloo ghosht steams before me. I am tired and hungry and appreciate every last mouthful. Not even the court of Bahadar Shah Zafar ever served a meal as delightful as this. There is even some local ice cream at the end. It is soft and cloudlike and full of nuts. I only take a little though – now is not the time for such indulgences. As the meal ends we lie down in our bedding and soon we are all asleep.