Humbled on the Karachi-Hyderbad highway
26.08.2010 - 13.09.2010 35 °C
Islamabad, Pakistan - September 3, 2010
How do you describe the first time you see a flood relief camp? How do you explain the sheer numbers of people and the enormous scale of what is needed? How do you also describe the unexpected kindnesses, the small smiles, the courage and the tenacity of people for whom daily existence has become a struggle but who push on and help themselves, their families and their communities in any way they can? Truly, it is a humbling experience.
I have come with my colleagues from Islamabad to support Plan's staff assisting flood survivors on the ground in the Thatta district of Sindh province in Pakistan. In Thatta district, almost 1,300 square kilometers of land have been flooded in recent days -- displacing more than half a million people. It is estimated that more than 400,000 people have moved here to this area near Thatta town, and along the Karachi-Hyderabad highway. You see these people everywhere.
Crouching on the roadsides, constructing makeshift shelters out of branches and plastic sheeting and cloth or anything else they can find. These hastily constructed shelters remind me of nests, and do very little to keep the sun off people and the ever-pervasive dust out.
Clean drinking water is, of course, scarce, there are no proper facilities for people to relieve themselves, and you can see mothers trying to clean themselves, their children and their family's clothes in dirty ditch water with garbage floating in it. Most of those fleeing the floods have been unable to get into the limited number of relief camps set up by the Pakistani government and non-governmental organizations like Plan International. I have lived and worked in many parts of the developing world. I have provided disaster relief in Canada. But I have never seen anything like these hundreds of thousands of people displaced and struggling in southern Pakistan.
A group of children quickly crowd around me as we enter the relief camp that Plan has set up with its local partner, Laar Humanitarian Development Programme. They giggle and pull at my newly purchased shalwaar kameez, glad to have visitors and some spectacle to break up the monotony of life in the camps.
The conditions in the camps are cramped, with families side-by-side, tarpaulins and cloth tent coverings flapping in the wind. Wooden poles and ropes hold up makeshift dwellings; the smoke from cooking fires and dust are everywhere. I press one of my colleagues into translation duty and crouch with the children, asking them how long they have been here and how they are feeling.
"I don't want to be here, in this place," says 10-year-old Zaafira*, whose family fled from the floods in a donkey cart four days ago. "I want to go home, and to go back to school. It's boring and dirty here."
What can I say to her? It may take weeks, even months, for the flood waters to recede and for her to be able to return to her home. Zaafira tells me her family has no land, that her father supports them as an agricultural day labourer. With huge swaths of farmland now under water, and water tables saturated in many areas, who knows if her father will have a job to go home to?
We do what we can for Zaafira and her friends and their families. It isn't much, but it is welcome. "Honestly, I thank God we are in this camp," says Zaafira's father Hanif. "If we had to be out there, on the road or in the fields, with no food or water or anything, I just don't know how we'd survive."
My headscarf has slipped down in the heat. I pull it up over my hair and return to the highway.
*Names in this post have been changed for privacy reasons