Emirates flight from Dubai to Islamabad is uneventful but delayed, typical Emirates style; the pilot wakes up 15 minutes after scheduled departure, tells us how sorry he is and blames late arrival of this aircraft for the delay. As if I care; you are late, period, I don’t care an ant’s ass why; save me the sob story. Would Emirates care if I told them I am late checking in because my driver was delayed picking me up? The food served on board is so bad, my neighbor takes one bite of his chicken korma, makes a face, hurriedly covers his tray, pulls a blanket over his face and is fast asleep in about two minutes; lucky guy. I eat the salad and bread, for I am hungry, this is my iftaar and sleep afterwards is impossible. There is commotion on board after we land, people are on their feet, emptying overhead cabins before the aircraft comes to a full stop; cabin crew franticly force them to cease, but my fellow passengers are in a hurry, they ignore pleas to sit down; the crew give up.
A strikingly young attractive lady immigration officer, scanning through my passport wants to know why I go to Afghanistan so much; I explain I am an aid worker building schools and taking care of orphans, widows there. A sad look clouds her pretty face and says in very heavy accented Pinglish, they kill you American, be careful, no? Some Pakistanis too, I want to add but bite my tongue instead. She waves me towards a desk where I am to apply for visa on arrival. I leave her reluctantly; not sure why, maybe a feeling of shared camaraderie between us in the few seconds of our interaction.
A young, smart looking officer asks me to complete a visa application form, which is difficult, as the form is so light from frequent photocopying, I can hardly read the questions asked. The officer then asks to borrow my pen so he can fill out my visa sticker, his pen has gone missing, he says. I hand it over reluctantly; my pens share common traits with my ex wives; have this nasty habit of divorcing me. Visa sticker complete, he attempts to coax stubborn glue out of a bottle but it is adamant, refuses to come out. Frustrated, he slams the bottle to the floor and storms off, looking for a fresh bottle somewhere inside the adjoining office. I take this opportunity to replace my pen with an inexpensive one that is lying useless in my laptop bag. He returns with mission failed, no replacement glue to be found. He retrieves the abused glue bottle from under his desk and takes off the cap, scoops out some with a pinkie finger and lines the edges of the visa sticker and applies it to a passport page with a look of triumph on his face. He has to validate the visa sticker now but cannot find a suitable place to wipe excess glue off his fingers, so it goes on his jet black thick head of hair. I wish I was with him next time he combs his hair, only because I am suddenly envious of the healthy head of hair he sprouts; puts my barren scalp to shame. It is 3AM when I leave the airport and arrive at my hotel an hour later. I can sleep for three hours only after fajr namaaz as representatives from Husseini Foundation are here to pick me up for our tour of flood affected areas in Pakistan Punjab.
The 3 lane highway out of Islamabad towards Punjab and Dehra E Ismail is smooth and very well maintained; the South Koreans have done a splendid job. It is after we cross a major dam and power plant at a key junction on the Indus River that separates Punjab from Dehra E Ismail that the enormity of the floods slaps me, hard. Everywhere, as far as the eye can see, is crippling devastation. Homes flattened, belongings washed away, people and animals drowned, mosques and imambargahs flattened and miles of fertile agricultural land, crops destroyed. The water that came gushing into these flat lands was so immense, it defies all logic; 600mm or 25 inches of rain fell in one day!
For the next 3 days, I see repeat horrors that I would not wish on anybody. I am besieged in every village we visit, throngs of fatigued, pitiful people in tattered and dirty clothes wanting, waiting, complaining, beseeching. Unanimously, all of their faces have one look in common, hope. Hope I would be their savior, pull them out of their predicament and this makes me feel sick to the pit of my stomach; awfully awful, crush me to a point I internally break down in despair repeatedly. Saidalain, Shadau, Thatta Balochan , Taunsa, Basti Shero, Tehsil, Jampur, Basti Guddan, Chawk Qureshi , Basti Sobay Wala, Basti Kumar, Biat Bogha and Basti Muhammad Ali, tragedy after tragedy, tales of horror that numb me so much I begin to block it all out after a while, else it will drive me insane. Most passionate lament is for lost harvest and homes destroyed; all men, without exception, beg me to help rebuild their homes. It is crushing feeling for village men not to be able to feed and house his family, his honor.
At Jampour and Laiyah, I am so traumatized at the sight of what greets my eye, I become angry at Allah and stupidly question His justice. Why, why, why? We are the first outsiders these victims see since they escaped rising waters; hundreds had to be rescued by makeshift boats pulled by male family members wading or swimming through muddy water. For miles, families with destroyed belongings squat, blocking roads. The Day of Judgment; will it be similar to this? The enormity and hopelessness of it all is suffocating. These people live on the road itself and then bathe and defecate in the flood waters still to recede. It is difficult to draw the line between humans and their animals, as they try to share meager resources rescued.
At a refugee center inside Masooma Qoom mosque in Laiyah, about 600 people have taken refuge. Women and children sit and while away their time doing nothing but stare blankly into space, the shock of what occurred still incomprehensible, even after 6 weeks. Children play or cry all around me, some want to see their photos on the camera screen while others want to touch me, as if I am some sort of celebrity. I meet 3 brand new babies, 2 girls, both aptly named Masooma and a boy, Mohammed, born as refugees inside the mosque. What does the future hold for them?
I get out from my air-conditioned vehicle to take pictures in the suffocating heat and humidity while people lolling around with their families stare at me blankly; the stench of rot and decay is overpowering, disease cannot be far behind. What good will these pictures you take do, asks a very old man looking up at me from a charpoy. I squat next to him and try explaining that I will share it with worldwide community and this will, insha’Allah, bring some help for him. It is okay then, he says, nodding his head in approval, better than these bastard politicians of our country. This, distressingly, has been a universal complaint from victims throughout my tour.
The 3 days and 2 nights I spend on the road in Dehra E Ismail, Dehra Ghazi Khan and Laiyah Districts are exhausting, retiring at about 2AM. The hotel generator at Dehra E Ismail is so noisy, I feel I have been hit by a sledgehammer the next morning. The bathroom is a mess and towel smell of cow dung from yesterdays visit to the devastated farms. Sobering is news from my host that Dehra E Ismail and Dehra Ghazi Khan are hotbeds of secretion violence, with Shias targets of Wahaabi groups. Why, 3 Shia Muslims were gunned down just this morning and a decision is made to avoid going to Dehra Ghazi Khan proper; I become tense and fret about either a bullet or bomb making us targets, even though our trip here has been kept secret just for this reason. The going is slow and laborious, with frequent stops at destroyed roads and pauses to calm or just listen to traumatized victims along the way.
What I experience in these 3 days is unique, I cannot understand it, and so it makes me mad. There are tragedies that are manmade (Afghanistan) and I can blame humans for it. But here, I don’t know, just don’t know; must accept Allah, the Mighty, the Powerful, the All Knowing and the Most JUST has a reason and accept His doing. Ya Allah, please accept our small sacrifices in the service of Your humanity, for Your pleasure, have mercy on these victims, relieve them of their trauma and speed them to full habilitation. You do what You will, there is no might except Yours and nobody worthy of worship but You.
As for CAI, we promise, as usual, full accountability, transparency and hands on involvement – all at zero administration cost. Of course.
Instead of bogging you down with all statists, I list the loss of lives and property from just Dehra E Ismail District. Remember, this is just one district in Punjab; there are 5 more (Dehra Ghazi Khan, Rajanpour, Muzzaferghar, Laiyah and Bhakkar) not included. And Sindh of course, an area I did not visit.
Area of flooding: 140 by 60 miles, affecting 950,000 people.
10 people died.
20,000 homes destroyed.
136,000 acres of land destroyed – 50,000 wheat, 50,000 rice, 36,000 of corn, millet, etc.
2,000 animals perished.
45 villages completely washed away
40 mosques destroyed.
10 Imambargas destroyed.
CAI, like many other NGO’s, funds Husseini Foundation of Pakistan, a credible and active organization, with good logistical and local area committees that oversee the relief work. There are, obviously, many needs that the victims have; some are already being met; food and medicines are generally being met by many NGO’s and the government, with some exceptions. CAI will concentrate the following:
Destroyed homes still have about 60% material that can be reused; bricks, wood, iron frames, doors etc, CAI will not provide these. Labor will have to come from the victims and family, friends. If this rule is strictly applied, a damaged or destroyed home (12x18 sq. ft.) can be rebuilt for an average of USD500 each. If each family where this email reaches blesses these wretched families with one home, CAI can participate in at least 1,000 homes. A tall order perhaps; I am, however, optimistic as we enjoy the blessings of our Eid, we will dig deep to come up with the funds. Insha’Allah. This is 1 room home, nothing else. As long as we can get these people inside a protective environment that will give shelter from approaching winter, we will insha’Allah, save lives.
The coming winter will take its toll. These victims are defenseless against elements as they have lost everything. For this year at least, CAI is changing focus of blankets from Afghanistan to Pakistan. We might still target a smaller group for blanket distribution there, if funds permit, but focus will be Pakistan where we are sure lives will be lost if we are not proactive. One good, warm blanket that accommodates 2 people will cost around USD14.
Economic empowerment for widows / single mothers:
As proved over and over again, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, sheep rearing by womenfolk is one sure way out of grinding poverty. 5 sheep that cost about USD550 awarded to a widow or single mother and well administered will see the victim out of desperation within about 6 months as she will have regular income from milk and byproducts and 100% profit from resale of new babies.
Your USD50,000 contribution so far:
Because of the situation and immediate needs, funds that were advanced to Husseini Foundation went for purchasing grains to feed the victims; 6 trucks of food grain fed 8,500 families with rice and pulses. All future funds will be now directed towards the priority items listed above.
Please click here for a library of photographs from floods areas I visited.
I thank Hassan Aboolo and Brig (R) Zamurad Khan of Hussein Foundation for their assistance and hospitality during my brief stay in Pakistan. Thank you guys - could not have done this without your invaluable assistance.