Usman Ahmad’s diaries
The day starts immediately after Fajr. I could have done with a little more sleep but given where I am and why I have come it would be churlish to complain. It has rained for a second night and the cool air gently wraps around our tired frames. The weather it seems is once again our friend, but in all honesty, the last thing that this region of the world needs right now is more water.
Basti Rindaan and Basti Sohrani are neighboring villages situated on the banks of the Indus. Almost everything here is destroyed except the spirit of the inhabitants which is resolute and firm. I am told that 6 ft of water inundated the town and spread for many kilometers. Houses were crushed and crops decimated by the racing waters. Piles of rubble and debris are all that remain. Huge cracks ravage the land and the scene is something I would associate more with an earthquake than a flood. The focus of the people is on the future. Over the years, the path of the river has slowly edged closer to their homes and is now only a few furlongs away. Many fear that they will not be able to live here much longer. A sense of uncertainty is palpable. Some want to move away immediately lest further floods strike, others want to remain in the short-term and temporarily rebuild what they have, while others still do not want to go at all. Their lives are intricately linked to each other and to the land making the process of arriving at any decision a fraught one. We distribute the gift packs we have brought and hold meetings in each of the village mosques. Bastin Rindaan – the larger of the two dwellings– has been struck by further tragedy. A day before our arrival one of their youth was killed by a snake bite while out hunting with his friends. He was only 17. A sense of melancholy and sadness prevails and is given physical expression by the pale glow of the morning light. The elders of the town sit huddled beneath a grand old tree lamenting this senseless loss of life. We meet with the father of the deceased and express our condolences. His tenacity and the tenderness of his embrace in the face of total devastation are disarming. It is at once unbearable and inspiring and fills me with a range of ambiguous emotions.
The sun is out and we are making the short journey to Rajanpur. For some reason I keep on referring to it as Rajasthan. This is more a slip of the tongue than a Freudian slip but it is beginning to irk regardless. Unlike DG Khan, the city itself was affected by the flash floods, but from what I can tell, life has mostly returned to normal and, as with all such areas, it is mainly the agricultural heartlands which have been worst affected. After meeting with our hosts we make our way to Basti Azizabad which is almost 50kms away. Our journey there is wondrously lush and we are walled in by vast buttressed trees and tall date palms. It is as if we are crossing through a dense African jungle. The village is remote and populated entirely by two generations of one family. They were completely hemmed in when the flood waters came and were it not for the heroic efforts of local charity workers – who traipsed through water as high as 5ft – they would have been without food and other supplies for over a week.
Much of the water has receded now but a fair amount remains. Their homes however are intact and given the plight of others we have met this is a huge blessing. They have made preparations for our arrival. Pepsi, ready cut apples and wonderfully piquant pilua cooked with chick peas gladden our hearts as well as our stomachs. Whatever the scale of the disaster their sense of hospitality remains unbroken. After lunch we distribute supplies and give biscuits to the many kids who clamber around us. They take them and run away gleefully. After a similar stopover at Basti Baba Barkat Khan – during which our host’s car succumbs to a particularly muddy patch of road and much messiness ensues in freeing it – we proceed to Basti Lashari which will provide me with some of my most haunting moments. On a stretch of dirt track alongside the Indus lie ramshackle shelters for what seems like miles and miles. There are literally thousands of people here and every one of them stops us and pleads for something – anything. One family asks me to take their picture and make me promise that I will tell people about their plight. So here it is. In this remote corner of South Punjab the victims of the floods have barely received any help or aid whatsoever. Almost all of them are without tents, and the ones that are, have had to scavenge for them. It has been over two weeks since they last received any rations and most of them are now living off scraps. One woman shows me a roti and pleads that this is the last of the food she has left. We distribute what we can – but it is pitifully insufficient. A bare-chested man comes to us begging for even ten rupees. There is water on both sides of the track and their harvest is ruined. We make arrangements with the charity workers under our command to give particular attention to this area and come again tomorrow and at least once a week thereafter. But they can only do so much – others need to join in the effort. But sadly much like the rest of South Punjab neglect and indifference seem to reign. There is no-one here and nor is there even a hint of any effort or preparation being made. We leave but with heavy hearts. It did not have to be this way – but alas this is modern day Pakistan and nothing is as it should be. At night I manage to catch some English language news. It feels like my first contact with the outside world for weeks not a couple of days. But even the news seems trivial now. I go to bed slightly early – we will be sleeping on a roof on charpais. The bustling sound of Rajanpur and the coolness of the night elate me and every part of me takes in the atmosphere before I am finally taken captive of my slumber.