How to feel when you have lost everything

The crowded camps bear resemblance to a tinder-box. A single spark can ignite them. Frustrated and with little to do, armed men from different tribes have already clashed.

Morial Shah August 20, 2010
It’s hard to resume normal life after coming back from the flood zone. Vivid images of victims haunt me as the human toll begins to stack. Lately, I’ve been asked to explain what the situation in Khairpur is like and what individuals can do to help. First, allow me to explain a few Sindhi terms which have forcefully made their way into vernacular and will feature prominently in any discourse about floods in upper Sindh.

Boodh: Sindhi term for the floods. Ironically, some people, Masi Aqeela leading them, still believe that at the end of the day floods are a blessing as they replenish ground water supplies and increase the soil’s fertility. The flood victims and I, however, beg to differ.

Bundhs: Sindhi term for embankments. Under the present conditions, my aunt might be right in calling them “Sindh’s lifeline.” People’s lives are precariously entangled with their faith in the bundhs. If the bundhs crack, all hell will break loose. As of now, Khairpur city’s collective hopes are pinned upon the survival of Buberlow bundh and quite understandably the local populace is consumed by uncertainty and is busy praying to the Heavens for Buberlow’s resilience.

Baathees: People. Whether they are tightly packed in camps, crowding the houses of their relatives, or taking refuge on roadsides, the victims of the flood register their strong presence.

What happened in Khairpur

Khairpur’s case is a peculiar one. An estimated 200,000 people in Kutchcha areas (areas on the river bed) were displaced by the floods. Many of these people are living along the Piryalo and Buberlow bundhs. The city district government was prepared to house some of them in 19 camps. However, the massive influx of IDPs took the local government by surprise. After the Kutchcha and Pukka (non-river bed) areas in the right bank districts of Kashmore, Ghotki, Jacobabad, Shikarpur, Larkana and parts of Sukkur were inundated following  the breaches in the Tori bundh and the Begari canal, hundreds of thousands of people were forced to move. Promise of food and sustenance in the nearby Khairpur, the home district of the chief minister, drew them towards it.

When I left, Khairpur had over 50,000 people living in camps. A larger number were living along the bundhs, with relatives, or on the streets. Right now, the city government in collaboration with NCHD, IRC, PHDF, Red Crescent, Anjuman-e-Tajeeran, philanthropists and local communities is managing these camps. However inadequate their collective efforts might be, from what I’ve heard from local people, journalists, and government sources, flood victims in Khairpur seem to be getting a better than deal than those in other districts of northern Sindh.

Most camps I visited lacked facilities such as electricity, clean drinking water, medicines, milk etc but their inhabitants said that they were getting one or more cooked meals a day. However, they complained about the quality of food and were unhappy at being fed rice instead of their preferred rotis.  Given the spread of disease, the slow pace at which relief goods arrive, and the social problems developing amongst frustrated, sometimes armed men of different clans living in congested conditions makes the question of the victims’ survival even more difficult.

What needs to be done

With its resources overstretched, the local government is looking for tents to set up villages for the flood victims so that schools can start functioning. Moreover, in a meeting at the crisis complaint cell it was decided that the local government would welcome corporations, philanthropists, and NGOs to adopt camps. The estimated cost of adopting a camp housing about 200 people and providing dry food supplies is under Rs 500,000 per month.

A request from the victims

Most people living in camps asked for the provision of milk for children, hand held fans, soap,  chapals, clothes, utensils, clean water, bathing  facilities, and medicines. Exceptional demands for buffaloes and plots of land also made their way towards me. And taking the unhygienic condition of most camps into account only made it plausible for the administrators to ask for the provision of brooms and mops so that women in the camps could help clean.

No heart to be human anymore

Apart from the obviously overwhelming economic implications of the floods, social problems may also figure prominently among the consequences of the floods. Derogatory phrases like “Hayee, marhoon ta safa jatt hein!”  or "These people are completely uncivilized!" were often repeated by members of the local communities. This highlights the dangerous dehumanising trend surfacing in cities whereby flood victims are viewed as an uncouth, almost non-human lot, unworthy of sympathy or hospitality. Although many political and social activists are working to reverse this trend by showing generosity and hospitality towards their ‘guests,’ many people don’t share their views.

The crowded camps bear resemblance to a tinder-box. A single spark can ignite them. The day I arrived, reports about a tense, armed, and angry Baloch tribe in the Mumtaz College camp housing over 1,200 people were making rounds. After a social worker convinced some women and children, badly in need of a wash, to bathe themselves in a closed enclosure, frustrated and armed male relatives were convinced that other men watched their women. With their egos and 'ghairat' in the saddle, they created a precarious situation that was resolved with considerable delicacy but was, in many ways, a precursor of the sort of problems that can occur when numerous people with a rigid social code live in cramped quarters without anything to do.
Morial Shah A student of International Politics and Security at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University She tweets at @MoruShah.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Sarah B. Haider | 12 years ago | Reply Splendid. Way to go Morial.
Mishal | 12 years ago | Reply This is a very insightful article. You are the much-needed eyes for those of us who haven't actually been in the midst of all this devastation.
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