Pakistan Floods 2010: When Desperation Knocks

Published in the Express Tribune Blog on September 3, 2010

by Ms. Ammara Farooq Malik,
A  lawyer, writer and founder of the SEPLAA Foundation. She was actively involved in flood relief efforts and had initiated an innovative method to collect clean drinking water for flood victims.

A baby, held by his mother, is crushed between villagers fighting for bags of flour during flood relief distribution near Muzaffargarh in Punjab, Pakistan

Delivering flood relief is half the job. The other half should be the restoration of human dignity. Flood victims look hopefully at each relief truck that passes by willing to run for miles until it stops. The people have genuine grievances too. They want to know when they will find their 7-year-old child who went missing 3 weeks ago. They want to know why their NIC reads that they have been born 5 years ago due to a typing error and thus are deprived from  getting rations in lines that demand to see identification. They want to have clean water to drink…or even put on their heads to save themselves from the scorching Southern Punjab heat where they are forced to stand under the blazing sun with no roofs over their heads…

Desperate for compassion

When we got there, there were no relief camps set up  and no other team was helping. There was no governmental presence. As the lone female member of the team, the women thronged me with appeals of aid and asked me to help them with things they could not ask the male relief workers.  Their eyes were begging for compassion and their hands for anything they could take with them.

I felt really embarrassed when a man waved his NIC card at me from the shakily formed relief distribution line and spoke in English saying “Please help me. I have my ID card…”

This could have been me, or my husband or my brother had we been living in those areas.

I disagree with those who say that these flood victims need to be dealt with harshly at times so that relief items can be distributed evenly. It is a Herculean task to even put ourselves  in their position and  try to imagine their losses.

Eight days without milk

I saw a widow, who had a missing child, no husband, her home had suddenly submerged in water. Three other small children sat under an open sky under the scorching sun. The woman showed me all kinds of documentation that she had managed to get made over the past week. It had been 8 days and her children had been without milk. As a mother I can  understand the desperation for giving one’s small children milk when milk is all they will have.

Desperation knows no manners

Someone remarked that these people need to have patience whenreceiving aid. I personally think that the flood victims demonstrate extreme patience and fortitude of spirit when they stand in even a semblance of a line to get aid. Without making excuses for their rowdy behavior, when these poor people would end up ransacking the trucks we took to them after they had stood in line for over 20 minutes, I can safely say that if it was a question of the survival of the fittest, even the most civilized nations  would behave in a similar manner. This is simply human nature.

Some people tried to get two relief bags instead of one. I ask myself, if my children were hungry and without a roof over their heads would I have the patience to receive just one bag? Given the chance I would want to take 100 bags for my children. These are our survival instincts and the flood victims of Pakistan have shown tremendous fortitude, resilience and endurance. No one should take that for granted.

Women and children first

Those who suffer the most are the elderly and women with small children. Aid workers normally make people stand in lines to get relief. They should make women form two lines: one for the young and able bodied women and the other for aged women or those with small children. They should all be given relief in the manner that shows that it is the right of these people.

This is what I managed to do with my team, albeit after a lot of pushing to get through, jumping onto the back of the truck and using my age old debating voice at full volume to implore a crowd of at least 600 desperate people to give the more deserving a chance…and we know that at least in the end, the most deserving were helped first.

Smiles are for free

Kindness and a smile can make a huge difference to their broken self esteems. More women must go out to help in the relief efforts. At the end of the day, after we had distributed  family packs to 550 families, given another 500 straw mats and distributed 100 goody bags with sweets and toys to children wandering aimlessly, we had nothing more left to offer them…except hope. One little girl, who had fought hard to get her straw mat, clutched it tightly in her little arms and asked me,

Auntie, will you come again?

Though I had not planned to go again, the gratitude in the eyes of the elderly women and overjoyed children had already made me change my mind. By the time I was questioned, I knew that I had to go there again.

We may or may not want to be Pakistanis but we all claim to be part of the human species. This flood situation is nature’s way of asking us all to live up to this identity. Do we really deserve to be called human?


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