PAKISTAN’s story is best told pictorially by juxtaposing images at any given point in time. The current photos and footage of the catastrophe unleashed by the rain and floods tells all there is to tell about the leaders and those they profess to lead.
Take a look at some statistics: 33 million people displaced, over 1,200 killed, destruction and damage to crops, livestock and property reportedly over $10 billion — an estimate that may well shoot up once the waters recede and more on-sight surveys become possible.
Old colleague and friend Saima Mohsin who is reporting from the flooded parts of Sindh for SkyNews did a story from the National Highway near Dadu last Friday. She was driving with her crew down the raised road with floodwaters on either side when she noticed people from a nearby village wading through waist-deep water to bring their families and belongings to the dry shoulder of the highway.
What the reporter showed us next would have broken the coldest of hearts as she pointed to the ‘belongings’, the valuables, the villagers had saved at the risk of being drowned: a soaked charpoy with a cotton mattress and a couple of small potlees or cloth bundles with food and other supplies.
People in every area who suffered the sudden ravages of torrential rains were angry and had every reason to be.
Of the 33m displaced, Sindh has had to bear the brunt with 44 per cent of that staggering number in the province. Parts of southern Punjab do not seem far behind with the footage of grown men on social media breaking down and weeping as they stand chest-deep in water and talk of having lost their homes and every other belonging, and having hungry children to feed.
There was one woman, squatting outside a tent on the roadside somewhere in KP saying, that till days before the rain, her household used to prepare food for 10 extra people at every meal and now, she gesticulated to show the scene around her, “We have become beggars”.
Even in the best of times, the state machinery is rotten, inefficient and corrupted. Come a natural calamity — even if there had been warnings of heavy rains ahead of the disaster — initially there was very little that could have been done to provide succour to the devastated multitudes.
So, people in every area who suffered the sudden ravages of too much of a normally scarce commodity were outraged and had every reason to be. Losing your home, your shelter, your last refuge even if it is a mud hut, overnight must be the most traumatic experience one can have.
When that loss is exacerbated by the far larger threat of starvation, disease and even death of loved ones what will you not say or do to draw attention to your circumstances? I won’t even talk of those lamenting their inability to give the dignity of a burial to their loved ones as they helplessly watched them being dragged away by the cruel torrents.
The anger and despair of the flood-hit Pakistanis was palpable. Powerful TV images create their own compulsions and at some point the administration was spurred into action. Given the scale of the disaster, even with troops being called out rather belatedly, no miracles were possible.
One prime example of the shortcomings was the video made of a Balochistan government helicopter that was literally tossing out ration bags to people in a rocky terrain from a considerable height.
The bags were literally exploding on impact with all their content including wheat flour spilling onto the ground. This ‘aid drop’ was not unique as in KP too people were complaining via a video clip of a helicopter dropping bulky ration bags on their standing crops and flattening them. Two KP women also decried that photo ops dictated the aid handover.
Juxtapose this rather ‘sanitised’ version of facts on the ground (I just could not muster the courage to put into words some of the images I have seen) with the images of convoys accompanying leaders to the affected areas. I mean those leaders who bothered to go.
The prime minister, his party leaders and the leaders of his allied parties have gone to the affected areas in long convoys with their security detail comprising dozens of vehicles including their own armoured SUVs while trying to display support for those who lost the shirts off their backs.
Even more grotesque was the dozen-vehicle convoy of the main opposition leader as he is being guarded by the Islamabad, Punjab, KP, AJK and GB police (well sort of the opposition leader as his party is in power in all the mentioned areas except Islamabad) because he wasn’t even headed in the direction of the flood-affected people to offer his sympathies. No. He was on his ‘real freedom’ campaign or “power grab” (borrowing here from Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy’s article published on these pages yesterday) as that was the main issue of the day and refused to halt his political meetings, despite the request of his own party’s man, President Arif Alvi.
Pakistanis are said to give wholeheartedly to charity. But anonymously. This is for two reasons. One, people with big hearts are embarrassed by publicity, and two, they don’t want to be slapped with tax notices if what they give is deemed to be beyond their declared means.
Is this why none of the many billionaires in the country, and this may include politicians and other people in positions of immense power, announced an exemplary personal donation, while they were happy to be photographed giving government-funded sewing machines to widows?
Forget this. My hero was the man in a remote, flooded part of Sindh whose friends heard of his situation and took out a bag of rations for him. This man standing on the raised, dry road, surrounded by flooded fields and water dripping from his clothes, points to another man who’d followed him and was wading through chest-high water.
He asks his friends to give half the rations to that man: “His children are hungry too.” The friends can’t hold back their tears. Neither can the man. Who can?
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, September 4th, 2022