JAALWALI: At a small tea stall in the Jaalwali village near Khangarh, Muzaffargarh district, 10-year-old Sajid Mohammad fiddles with dirty cups and packets of biscuits. He speaks in calm, lilting tones between serving customers sitting on a nearby charpai or pouring out petrol – which the stall also vends – for passing motorcyclists.
“Petrol costs Rs50. Tea costs Rs10.”
“Isn’t that very expensive?”
“People buy it,” he says with a smile.
The stall is run by his maternal uncle, who is away to run an errand.
“I have been working here for three years,” he says. “My father died six or seven years ago. I don’t remember him very well.”
His sisters, who are married, stitch clothes for people in the village, as does his mother, while his brothers work as labourers. “When I am older, I will be a labourer, too.”
“Do you want to go to school?” I ask. He first hesitatingly shakes his head.
“Your uncle isn’t here,” I say. “You can be honest.”
Sajid’s tone becomes more animated after he looks towards the road to see if his uncle is returning.
“I do want to go to school,” he says shyly. “The school is in our village. It is up to the tenth grade.”
“I work here every day from 6 am to 7 pm. Then I come home and go to sleep.”
I ask him about a photograph hanging on a wall in the stall. “That’s my grandfather. He was an ironsmith.”
Collected flood water glistens nearby. The smell of the coal that Sajid is burning to make tea wafts through the air.
‘We didn’t know there would be a flood’
Sajid’s village was flooded earlier this month. He escaped with his family to a settlement close to Jaalwali.
“We didn’t know that there would be a flood. We could see the water approaching our house, so we just packed our belongings. I was scared. We didn’t have a car … we had to rent one. We couldn’t take everything, so we had to leave some things behind. We did take two trunks though.”
It is survival of the fittest in the calamity-hit province, even for children, who fight with people disbursing aid and wade through water with their fathers to reach boats bringing food and water to those who haven’t evacuated their homes.
The children in Jaalwali village collect to listen to a helicopter hovering nearby. A young boy, covered by flies from head to toe, dozes on a charpai. The children race to see the helicopter as it approaches closer to airdrop relief goods and then reach out their arms.
After the chopper disappears into the blazing sun and the dust settles, they hurry back on the dirt road to their houses, clutching the relief goods. Some of the bags have ripped and liquid drips from the bags onto the road.
The next generation
Mothers are desperately worried about their children, who will grow up with stark memories of the floods.
In Daira Din Panah town in Muzaffargarh district, Ameer Begum reaches the house of a Pakistan Peoples Party member, imploring his wife to get her name on a list for recipients of relief goods. She clutches a copy of her national identity card.
“I have four daughters and a son … we have no food,” she sobs. “Four trucks with relief goods came to the road we are living on. I was shoved by the crowd. I couldn’t even get a bag of flour. Food only goes to those affiliated with politicians.”
Her swollen eyes tell a tale of despair.
Ameer Begum’s home was in the Aray Wali village, on the outskirts of Daira Din Panah, which was hit by flood water that then made its way to the town.
“What will we do?” she says repeatedly. “The flood water took everything – our house, our belongings.”
In a relief camp set up in a school in Kot Sultan, Layyah, mothers share their tales of grief. They resisted forced evacuation attempts by the police, choosing to safeguard their homes and livestock instead. But when the water rushed towards their property, they grabbed their children and made their way to safety on boats.
Aziz Bibi says, “My five children attended school. I want them to be educated, to find work; even the girls can work and do embroidery. But we are poor people … we will accept whatever God gives us.”
Starting life in camps
By the time flood water recedes, many children would have opened their eyes in relief camps.
Manzoor Mai, who gave birth to her sixth daughter in a camp this week, sits on a charpai with her newborn.
“I would have liked to have given birth in my own home, in my own space,” she says. “But we had no choice.”
Many women in camps are pregnant. They are malnourished and are being given folic acid supplements.
While their mothers worry, children, who have found temporary homes in the crowded relief camps and on highways in southern Punjab, still have dreams. They miss their school books.
Girls want to become doctors. Others want to join the army or become pilots. Not Sajid, who is folding away money. “I still dream of the flood,” he says. “I dream that the water is approaching and we are being swept away with it.”
Published in The Express Tribune, August 25th, 2010.
More in PakistanIs parliamentary panel in conflict with Article 7?