They say the floods that hit Pakistan on 2010 were the worst ever floods since 1929. One would think nothing would compare to the pain and misery that met the eyes during the flood response in 2010. But it seems there is no limit for human misery. Eyes can open to observe more devastation, hearts can feel more pain, and souls can be shaken again. 29th September 2011: I have never been one for remembering dates, but this date will be engraved in my mind for years to come.
Field visits to areas affected by floods mean working 36 hours out of 24. Route clearance, coordination, travel arrangements, security monitoring... It is natural to have your mind buzzing with multiple things to focus on, while your cell phone keeps ringing.
Driver aware of the route, check; meeting with timings set up, check; departure for field in time, check; reservations made, check. The check list is never ending. Make a plan and be prepared for the plan to change. We set out at 0830hrs, our destination district MirPurKhas in southern Sindh. It is a bewildering sight to watch the destruction water can cause. Stretches of land, for as far as you can see, blanketed with water, leaving only memories and debris of what has been. For those who have never travelled here, it must almost seem peaceful. For those who have had the chance to visit this region, you can imagine how strange it is to see a normally hustling and vibrantly colourful place engulfed in ice cold grey water.
We found a woman in her early 20s, sitting by the road near a bundle of clothes covered with flies. She looked weary, exhausted and very ill. The cry of a baby filled the air and, to my amazement, she picked up that bundle of cloth and rocked it. We stopped our car and went over to her. She held in her arms an infant, newly born and very weak. Upon inquiring, we discovered that she was stranded. She had lost her husband somewhere in the chaos and after giving birth was too weak to go to a nearby camp or search for her husband. The baby was starving. His tiny body was covered with mosquito bites, and greedy flies clung to his delicate skin. She said she was lucky – her baby was alive. She pointed to another woman sitting across the road, saying, “She lost her four year old son and gave birth to a stillborn baby.” Then she turned to us and pleaded for shared hope and reassurance: “My baby will live, right? We survived this. Surely God will not let him die now!” I looked at the feeble child, and at the others. We all wanted to be hopeful, to say truthfully, “Yes, he will live to be a strong healthy young lad.” When the camp vehicles came to take the two women away, I stood there watching the track the tyres left behind and wondered: how much more can people suffer? These young women, who have grown up in a culture where they do not go out of the house uncovered, were left to care for their surviving children while lying exposed, un-chaperoned and unprotected.
When we reached the camp, I saw desolation that comes to haunt me when I try to close my eyes at night: the dirt streaked faces of children, some lying listlessly on bare ground, some with tattered clothes to cover their bodies, others with nothing. Women, oblivious of what they were wearing and what they had lost, were trying to protect their children from swarming mosquitoes and other vermin. The stench of waste, sweat and filthy water was nauseating. Those who had energy to fight for it were competing for the stale, dry pieces of chapattis that were available to eat. Others, who were too weak to even get up and claim food for themselves, just lay down, with watchful eyes, waiting for someone to drop them a piece. Desperation and helplessness can do that: kill your dignity, finish your will and rob you of everything.
Now that I am back in my home, I can appreciate much better all the little things that life has to give: the togetherness of family, the comfort of shelter, the clean, fresh air, the warm food... And the knowledge that even if we cannot help all, we can give some back what was taken away. That is the only thing that drives me. We can help give them back their life, their dignity. This is a message to all humans. We can care!
CARE has been working in Sindh since 2007, initially responding to floods, then with a Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights program, and staying on to support these communities devastated by the 2010 and 2011 floods. CARE’s priority is to work with marginalized women, providing primary health services and raising awareness on health and hygiene practices to help women help themselves.
Jamshed Naseer Siddiqi is Security Officer with CARE Pakistan.