Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Pakistani flood victims face perilous journey home

Rehmad Abbasi was only twenty yards from land. As the heavily-pregnant woman waded with her family through the thick, muddy water, she lost her footing.

Rehmad Abbasi was only twenty yards from land. As the heavily-pregnant woman waded with her family through the thick, muddy water, she lost her footing. When Rehmad silently slipped underwater in front of me it almost seemed deliberate. I expected her to spring up immediately. But the current was deceptively strong. A man standing next to me knew better. He hurled himself into the water towards the spot where Rehmad disappeared. Rehmad's sister and brother risked drowning themselves as they groped blindly, furiously under the water's surface. For thirty seconds all I could see was the frantic splashing of those trying to rescue her. Then, several metes from where she had gone under, the red and white stripes of her dress emerged. Her brother, Altaf, and the man who had jumped in held her up. An elderly man from the local village, Lodran, said in Urdu, "You can see the fear of death on her face. Two people were found drowned right here yesterday. When the waters recede, we will find more." 

Rehmad was wide-eyed and hyperventilating but she was alright. The two men hauled her to shore. When she finished gasping, sobbing took over.  "The water grabbed me. I felt a pain, and then it sucked me under," Rehmad cried, while her 10-year-old son, Sabil, wept on her knee. Her father gently stroked her head and reassured his daughter. "This flood did not drown us," he said calmly. "The government drowned us, and God will take revenge on them for our sake. Please be patient, my dear, and calm down -- God will take revenge." The Abbasi family told me they were desperate to return home to Jacobabad, in the north of Sindh province. They and hundreds of thousands like them who attempt the journey from Lodran to Jacobabad must walk 30 kilometers, navigating stretches of treacherous water, usually without the use of a boat or any shade. Most of those who try to go home find the turbulent waters too great an obstacle and turn back.
Authorities had diverted the floodwaters to spare Jacobabad, home to a military base used by American and Pakistani forces. They succeeded in saving the city center, but the town was surrounded as if by an enormous moat. The floods wiped out the roads to the city. District officials tore up parts of the main railway line to allow the water to spread more evenly. 

The handful of policemen and naval personnel in the area appeared to be overwhelmed or unconcerned by the scale of the problem. Two motor boats fit for about 10 people would be overloaded with many more and precariously ferry people back and forth. About a dozen police officers sat under a tent looking on as Rehmad's drama unfolded. When a man walked into the tent to seek shelter from the heat, one of the policemen sitting in a chair barked at him to leave. I asked the officer what they were doing to help people cross this stretch of water. He said that they were able to manage the crossing by themselves. Rehmad couldn't bear the thought of tackling it again. "I am scared of everything. I am scared of the boats, I am scared of the water. I am 8 months pregnant and I am scared I will have a miscarriage," she said.Altaf disagreed. "We have to go back across," he protested. "Where else will we go? What choice do we have?"


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