Down the river : ‘Tent’-ion in Pakistan’s Northwest
We left at first light, before the sun could crank itself up to its full, ground-baking strength. The road to Nowshera from Islamabad is a good one, with the appearance of modernity, including good shoulders, toll booths and freshly painted lines.
That impression doesn’t last once you start getting into the northwest province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The roads become narrower and the signs of rural poverty become more apparent. Despite the lush fields on either side, the mud-brick shops and vendor stalls are run-down and appear ready to collapse.
And the tents. All along the road are tents from various aid agencies and charities. These tents house some of the tens of thousands of flood victims that have fled their ravaged home villages, often leaving behind nothing but piles of mud and a few belongings where their homes used to stand.
Canvas or plastic, often ripped or patched, the tents are the only homes these people have a month after the worst floods in Pakistan’s modern history. No one is sure of the exact number of people displaced, but the United Nations estimates that more than 4.3 million people have been affected and more than 181,000 homes destroyed in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province alone.
At a technical college converted into a camp for flood victims, more than 550 families have taken shelter in these canvas homes. There is little privacy or cleanliness and flies and mosquitoes dive bomb children’s eyes and noses. Bags of wheat and flour bearing the HNHCR logo are stacked in a back courtyard where residents can’t get to them. Why aren’t they being distributed more often? Because some people don’t have the proper registration, the camp administrator Noor Akbar Afridi says.
Saghi Gul sits outside his tent absently digging a small ditch with a rusty shovel. He and his wife, along with their six children, all live in a small tent that he says was used to house victims of the 2005 earthquake. (Afridi confirms that many of the tents are being reused.)
As his wife peers around a tent pole, a scarf pulled across her face, he tells how his house in Wabda, a small village outside Nowshera, was “smashed” he said, and completely washed away in the deluge. Now his worldly possession amount to a small cot, a plastic water cooler and some blankets.
And he’s sick. Gul complains that he and his children are suffering from diarrhoea and that only the international NGOs have decent doctors. The Army is doing its best, but the civilian government hasn’t done anything for him, he said.
And the Islamic charities, such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa which are tied to militant groups often listed as terrorist organisations by the U.S. State Dept? The ones President Asif Ali Zardari says will take advantage of the flood chaos to bolster their ranks and plan new attacks?
Gul’s neighbour, Badsha Khan, who has been standing nearby, answers: “They are all shit,” he said and laughed. All over the country, more than 6 million people like Gul and Khan are homeless and in need of shelter. How much has been delivered so far?
The world body says 121,000 tents and 110,500 tarpaulins, which will house — if you can call a month living in a tent that — 1.2 million people. It’s a sobering statistic because it means the people in this camp are the lucky ones. At least they have a place to go. The rest are still on their own a month after the floods.