Victim-blaming cruel outcome of Swat’s flooding
We ask the little doll, what do you do all day? Do you play Stapoo or hopscotch? Wui pishogayee…sta sa noom de? Wui kitten, what’s your name? Come here… Raina stares and stares at the strange grownups who have come to the hut. In the cubby kitchen in the two-room cottage, a saucepan of tea simmers and spits as fresh milk is poured in. The smoke from the wood-fed stove flows up through a steel pipe chimney. The tea is served and the grownups keep talking but Raina still doesn’t speak. You see, there isn’t much point in asking her about playing—all her sisters and brothers, the children of her family, were killed in the floods at the end of August.
The journey to Raina’s home, and others like it, begins in the flat lands of Islamabad, until the motorway that feeds into the mountains, through a new tunnel, brings us up into Swat. We stop at a wholesaler in Matta to load up the truck with pre-arranged gas stoves, buckets, rice, sugar, kidney beans, spoons, ladles, pots… These are the immediate basics families need after flooding.
From Matta we make our way to Tiraat where we will meet up with Sajid Ullah, a lecturer in Government College Madyan, who has made lists of families needing the most urgent assistance. He has been running around in the community since the night of August 28 when the flooding took place. At a road where the water has gouged out a chunk of the landscape we commiserate with men from five families. If you want to gauge their penury, look down. Their shoes are grey plastic loafers, the kind construction labour wear in Karachi.
One of them is Chamnay who listens as the group debates tents, shelter sheets and waterproof tarpaulin. Sajid speaks for Chamnay until he opens up. Everything he had saved up for his daughter’s wedding was taken by the water along with his household belongings. He lived in a house by the river but because he could not afford rent, he made up for it by laboring for the landlord.
Amid goodbyes and promises to help return and rebuild, the five men eventually stop hesitating and reach for the five buckets, five mugs, five stoves. There is something about a man being grateful for a bucket that turns the world upside down. The utensil’s sharp shouty plastic red bobs rudely up and down as the men head back—in a moment one can only imagine people want to be quiet and hidden. Perhaps only the well-heeled can afford to maintain their dignities in natural disasters.
Sajid was at Isha prayers that night when the news started to spread. The power went out and his torch refused to turn on. In the blinding blackness he started walking until he met someone with a car. At Jarey, people trying to salvage their beehives were marooned and ropes had to be thrown to them. That day 25 people had to be rescued, of which 14 were taken to Civil Hospital, Madyan with broken legs, cracked ribs, heads busted open. This number doesn’t include the many more who were injured but stayed at home and did not seek help.
Further up from Tiraat in Shahgram, eight families in a compound of flats had to be rescued. “If we had arrived ten minutes late, they would have gone,” someone says at the hujra of Prof. Jehan Sher (correction, not Amin ur Rasheed’s) where everyone has gathered to tell their stories as the relief packages are put together in the courtyard. We are joined by community members such as Sajid Ullah’s students and other young men who were out rescuing people like Amin ur Rasheed. He aspires to politics but has started at the ground where the people are. That fateful night he was out there as was Sajid and many others for while the rescue teams arrived from the town, there was too much chaos to cope. Later, when calls were put out on Facebook people started dropping off whatever they could, mattresses, quilts, for these families who had lost everything except the clothes on their backs.
At the hujra we learn from retired sweeper Shah Jehan that his two grandchildren died that night, their mother unable to hold on to them in the raging waters which she watched sweep them away into the blackness. They had even lost their house in the 2010 floods. Irfan the tailor’s sister-in-law was killed trying to escape. Eleven people died in Tiraat and Shahgram.
One theory is the asmani bijli or lightning one in which people believe there is some magical drop of rain that hits a spot in the mountains to produce masses and masses of water that causes landslides. In Shahgram many people now think four such ‘thunders’ hit nearby, leading to the damage. A second theory, courtesy a local MNA who deigned to visit for the first time, is that this was the result of their sins. The truth is that it is neither faith nor freak nature but climate change. Weather patterns are shifting. This year till June it was cold and then it got unbearably hot. They usually have barsat mausam or a rainy season around this time but to their surprise and dismay there were many times there was no water for the crops. Then the flash flooding came to overwhelm the khwarrs or fast-moving streams that unfurl in the flumes of the valley.
The third theory, which is more damaging than the myths, is the disinformation that the victims themselves are crooked. “Pro-government people blame the flooding on people encroaching on the river bed,” Sajid says, putting it as delicately as possible. But this is a lie being pushed because the elected representatives are guilty they did not show up until a day or so later. The fact of the matter is that the houses that were destroyed are rented in many cases. They are built on land registered with the revenue department. Just ask the patwaris. Furthermore, they are built away from the water with a road usually set in between. These are not all encroachments as politicians have been insisting.
To make matters worse, when the chief minister visited he said that the still intact constructions near the river and streams would be removed. “He thinks these are built on encroachments even though the revenue department has them listed as privately owned lands,” Sajid explains. Everyone also noticed that the CM was quick to say he would rebuild a mosque that was destroyed in Bahrain’s bazaar (correction: not Shahgram) but there was no mention of helping the people who lived in rented houses. Many of them are still waiting for their compensation of Rs100,000 for the injured and Rs500,000 for the dead.
Time is running out on rehabilitating these families who are reeling from the trauma and loss. They will need shelter fast because it is September already and will get cold soon. There is talk of acquiring corrugated sheets to at least keep the rain out. “We don’t know what safe is,” one man says, when asked how they can rebuild safer. “All we know is that we have to build at a distance from the water.” One of the men whose wife and two children were killed, laughed bitterly when asked about that night. “It is like a hailstorm for a freshly sown crop,” he had told Sajid. His tiny new family, his children, his little seedlings…
The flooding brought landsliding with it, and so up at Raina’s house, gleaming boulders the colour of white water have been dislodged from high above and strewn across the ravine. The villagers pick their way across them and skip across the new waterways that have formed. The pathways have been rutted and water supply disconnected so the men quickly revived an old pipe system. A clutch of young men hacked away at the destroyed Tiraat-Dara pathway. They had sent two excavators to repair the roads, says Sajid, but one turned back mid-way and another barely stayed for a few hours.
It is up here, in the fork in the ravine that we find Raina’s father Pir Jaan sitting with his cousin Talimand on a charpoy at a house that survived. At the corner of the porch is a black headstone etched in white with a flower.
Pir Jaan’s son Bakhsherwan’s wife, her 20-month son and five-year-old daughter were killed. Pir Jaan’s two sons and daughter were killed. A ten-year-old son has not been found. A daughter was 13.
Pir Jaan had to run for his life when the wave came. He was on one side of the house. His children and their children on the other side screamed and screamed for help but he could do no more than look on helplessly.
This family was eleven and now they are five. Talimand and Pir Jaan’s families had intermarried, so the grief is doubled, tripled, infinite. “We sit here and give each other company now,” Pir Jaan says.
We go to a house where what remains of Pir Jaan’s family has been staying. It is the cottage tucked into the face of the hill, approached by a six-inch pathway we have to take single file. A purple quilt is draped precariously over a makeshift clotheshorse of branches at the edge to dry out in the sun.
Inside the room condolences are proffered. We are joined by one of the women of the family Akbarkhela. As she adjusts her dupatta, her hand trembles and then by extension her entire being. You cannot look at her face but as you look away, you feel it. “Only one child is left in the house,” she says. We ask no more questions.
That one child is Raina who does not speak. Her strawberry blond hair is plaited down her nape so tight that it coils up in a C with a ribbon perched at the end, like a question mark.
There is no journalism here. There is only something you wish were not a story.
Note: This trip was facilitated by Meenay Laas. With gratitude to Meena Gabeena and Sajid Ullah for translations