It is strange that Pakistan is not erupting in rage while deadly floods have affected millions. The rulers, including the president, are happily missing in action. The fury of water is not new to this land, but this year it has been exceptionally murderous. Already about 2,000 people have died. Many more are missing. Millions of acres of agricultural land have been submerged. Standing crops worth billions have been ruined and millions of farmers, already on the edge of economic precipice, have been pushed down to the depth of wretched poverty. Power plants that supply electricity to homes and industrial zones have become dysfunctional.
The elderly along the banks of the Indus say that they have not seen anything like this in nearly a century. Official records suggest that the last such flood came in 1929, which left the area in tatters. I have no reason to doubt these claims. I have travelled almost 1,700 kilometres with the furious river. I have witnessed the havoc the water has played with the community alongside the banks and deep into the city. Consider this: Kot Addu, a city bigger than Muzaffargarh, is completely under water. In Sindh, especially in the Katcha area, thousands of people are now in jeopardy. The sights that I have seen and tales I have heard are soul-searing. I remember a doddering old man who had walked barefoot for 15 miles along 40 members of his family and 35 sheep. He said that two babies were lost on the way; one died of a snakebite and the other was stillborn as his granddaughter had to give birth on the roadside. Children slipped out of their mother’s arms straight into the raging water; wives wailed as their men drowned before their eyes. Families clung to trees for days and some had to make the painful choice of leaving behind older family members because there was not enough space on the occasional rescue boats. I have seen corpses afloat in the water in abandoned villages and people stranded on their rooftops for days fearing death.
Even now thousands are stuck in Kohistan and Swat. Residents in the tehsils of Kabal, Matta and Shamozai, right up to Kalam face the prospect of starvation. But since most of us understand national tragedies only in terms of loss of life, and since the floods have not thrown up enough bodies, we have not woken up to its ugliness. The cold numbers on death-toll lists hide the torture and pain the people of Pakistan are undergoing. They hide the social and economic destruction that we will face in the coming months and years.
The scale of the tragedy is staggering. Never before has a single problem hit so many in so many different ways, including all the four provinces besides Azad and Jammu Kashmir and the Northern Areas. Most of the people I have spoken to said that they have now discovered there is no government in the country. A teacher from Muzaffargarh was livid that President Asif Ali Zardari was travelling to France and the UK when the country is sinking. He also recalled how, on the day he came out of the water on an inflated tube, he saw in the bazaar Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on national TV regaling himself with Adnan Sami Khan’s music and good food. He called it a crying shame, an act of unforgivable betrayal. As thousands move to the cities in search of shelter, and many more are packed along the roads, President Zardari’s happy pictures are indeed distasteful to look at. No less appalling is the shoddy PR the chief minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, is doing in the name of relief efforts. For the flood-affected, these pictures and official antics are as bad as the tragedy the heavens have sent down on them. Frankly, one doesn’t know which is more saddening and hurtful — the floods or a set of rulers who enrich and enjoy themselves as the people suffer an awful fate.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 9th, 2010.