Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo October 7, 2010

Sukkur, Pakistan: Frontline of the Flood (Part 2 of 2)


Media file: Pakistan_Flood_Victims.jpg

Epic floods recently inundated vast expanses of Pakistan in the worst natural disaster in its recent...

Media file: Pakistan_Flooding.jpg
Floodwaters traveling south to the Sindh Province from Sukkur, Pakistan continue to force hundreds out of their homes. Image by Deena Guzder. Pakistan, 2010.

Shaikh's relief camp, V Need U, is just one of the dozens that sandwich Airport Road in Sukkur, Pakistan. Kilometer after kilometer, we drive past tents emblazoned with the names of government and non-profit sectors: UNICEF, Iran Red Crescent, USAID, Muslim Aid, Saudi Relief Camp, UNHCR, and the Red Cross among them. Shaikh seems particularly unhappy with the response of larger humanitarian organizations that, he says, benefit from deeper coffers than his own but seem less invested in providing long-term relief. "With one of these large organizations, it is likely they are just doing this work for a pay check," he says. "These international organizations just throw tents from their helicopters and run away." Shaikh points to a USAID camp where a striped green and black cloth is strung across four vertical sticks of bamboo to create a cloistered area. "Look, they've set up a latrine on the edge of the main road," he says. "How stupid, and how unhygienic."

Shaikh bemoans what he regards as corporate opportunism in wake of the floods. "People found out I was funding a relief camp and, all of a sudden, a lot of [water] filter companies came to me and told me to purchase this or that," says Shaikh. "I told them to leave me in peace and [instead] installed a water pump in the camp." He continues, "Pepsi-Cola came for one week and set up a camp next to us. They took a few photos and then they left. They were not doing anything good for humanity. It was just a publicity stunt." Shaikh is no more lenient in his criticism of Sukkur's wealthy landowners, noting that "some VIPs may have breached the Indus River and flooded poor villages to save their own sugar mills and large estates." He adds, "When the Federal Minister of Labor came to this area, the people stoned his car because they said he saved his [estate] by diverting the water to the other side."

Surprisingly, Shaikh is more lenient than many of his compatriots when assessing the response of his political leaders. "Everyone is criticizing the government, but I always say that nobody could be prepared to face such a huge disaster." He adds, "You see with Hurricane Katrina and America . . . this big, rich nation was shocked and struggling. We [in Pakistan] are a third-world country and a very poor nation, so this is a very big thing for us." Shaikh notes the scale and magnitude of the disaster was beyond anyone's control and applauds his government's recent decision to give every flood-affected family cash relief of Pakistani Rupees 20,000 [USD $230]. Yet, Shaikh is careful not to invest too much hope in his political leaders, saying, "Our government is very corrupt." At another point in our conversation, he notes that government corruption may have preceded the floods and exacerbated their ramifications: "The country spent millions of dollars to get rid of silt in the river so it would not be so shallow [and could contain more water], but the Irrigation Commission is so corrupt and never removed the silt."

According to Shaikh, the Pakistani Army Rangers have done the best job responding to the floods. When I ask about discrimination against the Hindu majority, Shaikh says he's heard of some incidents of prejudice, but that most of the tension is within the Hindu community itself. "The floods displaced both high-caste and low-caste Hindus, but the high-caste don't want to share the same camp ground with the low-caste so they relocate," explained Shaikh who is a Muslim. His assertion contradicts that of the founder of United Pakistan, Yousuf Qureshi. Back in Karachi, Qureshi told me, "Let's be honest, there are some people who are very intolerant in this country." He adds, "I'm sure there are Hindu and Christian communities not receiving relief." In southern Punjab, leaders of the minority Ahmadi community have vocally denounced their lack of access to relief goods and coveted spots in relief camps. According to Father Mario Rodrigues, the Lahore-based director of Catholic Mission, Christians and members of other minority religions are also being treated as second-class citizens.

The major criticism Shaikh has of his government's response to the floods regards its unpopular decision to requisition schools as IDP camps. "The worst thing the government did was they didn't give the big bungalows and estates of the rich and corrupt politicians, but instead took over the schools," laments Shaik. "We're already a third-world country with poor literacy and students who hardly receive any education. Why do they have to take over the schools? Now, the [IDPs] are burning the school desks to make a fire for cooking." The floods damaged more than 10,000 schools, affecting several million pupils, and will require massive investment in the education sector, according to the United Nations. The UN Office for the coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said 5,563 schools are being used to shelter about 567,000 people who were displaced in the crisis.

Departing a school encampment, I suddenly realize a man armed with an AK-47 Kalashnikov is following us. When I inquire about the man's identity, Shaikh tells me he's one of his bodyguards who routinely accompanies him on trips. The bodyguard, Bashir Mazari, the father of six, is a surly man of few words who sports olive green fatigues and an embroidered skullcap. Noting my perplexed expression, Shaikh explains further. "There are looters, hijackings, and kidnappings here . . . also, Sukkur highway is where NATO artillery is transported [to Afghanistan] and often burnt on the road." Pointing to Mazari, he continues, "This fellow is a member of the Baluchi tribe, one of the inhospitable areas of Pakistan known as Majkah, which is near Obaro. Mazari's people are the ones who would loot and kidnap . . . but he's been with our family for a long time so we trust him." He nonchalantly adds, "At home, I have 50 men with AK-47s for safety."

I remember reading that Rizwan Baig, Muslim Aid's program manager in Sindh province, told the BBC, "There are some places we [humanitarian workers] can't go, especially after dark because of security issues." He adds, "People are dying in those areas, they need our help, but we have to come back to the city because it's too dangerous." I decide this is the perfect opportunity to ask a potential mercenary like Mazari about this alleged hostility toward humanitarian workers.

I ask Mazari about his experience during the flood. "There was lots of water," he recollects staring at some indiscernible point in the distance. "At night, we took the family out and went to high ground." Mazari says his neighbors' houses and cotton fields were destroyed and their livestock drowned. When I ask Mazari if his people would attack humanitarian workers who ventured to his area, he replies candidly, "I would not fight, but others might fight." He adds, "If the big tribal people take responsibility [and allow outsiders to come], it's OK, but otherwise we will attack and rob the people who come." When I ask him why he would loot outsiders who come to help, I half expect to hear an ideological explanation about the politicization of humanitarian aid — which corporations make a buck off tragedy; which countries use "soft power" to wedge open foreign markets and gain a geopolitical stronghold. Instead, Mazari responds with disarming simplicity: "My people, they are hungry people." He adds for emphasis, "We are hungry, so we must loot." Pressing further, I ask Mazari if outsiders should or should not help. According to the Baluchi warrior, his tribe would welcome humanitarian workers under the right conditions. "They are welcome here but they should come through some responsible authority," Mazari clarifies. "They should come through tribal chiefs. You need a tribal chief to sponsor the people who are coming. The tribal chief will give permission because they can then get some votes from the people afterwards."

Despite the media's somewhat sensationalist focus on the security risks in Pakistan for foreign aid workers, an unverified Taliban spokesperson based in Orakzai told The Express Tribune: "We have not issued any such threat; and we don't have any plans to attack relief workers." In the Sukkur airport, I speak with a Red Cross worker from Denmark. He tells me that his relief team continues to deliver humanitarian aid in remote areas cut off from food and transportation. "We took a helicopter to a newly flooded area this morning and did a [food] drop," he says. " The waters submerged this remote after a dam burst. We had many Pakistani [locals] volunteering with our team. The people on the ground were very grateful."

Most humanitarian workers I speak with say they are less concerned with ideological warriors than poverty-stricken looters. Of course, some extremists are capitalizing on the floods to further their own agenda. In a widely circulated Urdu daily, the banned extremist group Jamaat-ud-Dawah — blamed for the November 2008 Mumbai massacre — publicly solicited funds for its relief efforts. However, Pakistanis concerned with the spread of hateful ideologies repeatedly say the west should realize that poverty is fanaticism's most potent engine. The more I speak with men such as Mazari, the more I realize that armed violence in Pakistan often has far less to do with hateful ideologies than economic disenfranchisement. As the Pakistani commentator Tariq Ali notes, Pakistan's ruling elite have failed to construct a social infrastructure for its people over the last 60 years and this failure has fostered widespread frustration. According to the UN Development Program's 2009 Human Development Index, over a third of Pakistanis live in poverty, a situation comparable to Rwanda.

This post was updated on October 8, 2010.


yellow halftone illustration of an elephant


Environment and Climate Change

Environment and Climate Change
navy halftone illustration of a boy carrying two heavy buckets


Water and Sanitation

Water and Sanitation

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues