In the Keamari Town Camp for flood survivors relocated to Karachi, a woman with grey hair and strong hands sweeps the inside of her tent. It may be nothing more than a plastic sheet held down by four pegs, its makeshift doors flapping in the wind, but it is home. For now. Or perhaps forever. Her ever, at the very least. Girls collect sticks for the fire over which their mothers will cook dinner. A man, holding a knee-high metal stand that blooms in a bunch of fluorescent fabric flowers, waits outside a tent.
A camera dangling at his side, this is his mobile studio. He charges ten rupees for a photo, he tells me. A new bride pops out of her tent, a black bindi in the middle of her forehead, her dusky skin powdered and rouged. Are you ready, she asks the photographer, who holds up his flowery prop, indicating he is. I ask her if she will allow me to take her picture. He takes ten rupees; how much will you charge, she asks. When I explain that the picture I take will stay with me, she hides behind a wide smile and her tent, shakes her head, and says that it is not their tradition. Young men in groups saunter about aimlessly. Older men huddle together talking, on chairs placed in the shade of tents. A small child sits at a makeshift store, selling packaged popcorn, sweets and candied sesame seeds.
This flood relief camp is one of many that have become home to the survivors, with daily routines sketched out for the hundreds of thousands of homeless who are unable to return to their villages. Those who have gone back regret it, the menfolk tell me, for their landlords, their feudal masters, are demanding a harvest of rice and wheat promised in exchange for seeds and fertiliser. The harvest that these rich ‘agriculturalists’ are asking for never materialised because of the worst flood in Pakistan’s history. Our homes have dissolved into the earth, our fields destroyed, our animals dead or lost — what can we go back to, they ask.
Many of us have forgotten about the 20 million — a conservative estimate — that were affected. In a report titled “Six months into the floods”, Oxfam has reminded us of the urgent need to continue “a nationally led, pro-poor reconstruction programme”. In the Daily Times’ coverage of the story, the paper points out that “the Pakistan government is due to stop emergency relief operations in most of the flood-affected areas from January 31.”
This would be a catastrophic move. As Unicef has revealed, “a new humanitarian crisis: child malnutrition” has developed and “the crisis is the consequence of a combination of factors, including extreme poverty, poor diet, poor health, inadequate sanitation and hygiene, and a lack of education.”
We should try to reawaken some of that initial spirit that so many Pakistanis showed in the immediate aftermath of last year’s floods, and keep making any individual contribution we can.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 4th 2011.
More in OpinionDavis and our blundering Foreign Office