Village without hope counts cost of Pakistan floods
- 3 November 2010
- From the section South Asia
At a dangerous moment when many might have thought only of themselves, an impoverished Pakistani farmer thought of his neighbours. His name is Ilahi Bakhsh, which means "blessed by God".
It was 7 August 2010 and floodwaters were consuming his remote village in the southern province of Sindh.
He had already managed to move his immediate family to safety, but braved the torrent again, leading a Pakistan army rescue team to his village.
In the driving rain that day they would probably never had found it without him.
We were on board as Ilhali Bakhsh kept urging the rescuers deeper and deeper into the danger zone - coaxing, and pleading, though fuel supplies were dwindling. And we reached his village just in time.
Generations were snatched from the greedy waters - from shivering children to a frail elderly woman called Sat Bai, so weak she had to be carried.
Almost three months on we went back to find Ilahi Bakhsh - this time by car. We travelled with an armed guard. His lonely hamlet sits on a floodplain that is bandit territory.
The waters have receded, leaving the land parched and bare. The village is like a jigsaw puzzle, with the key pieces missing - the homes and the crops.
In Ilahi Bakhsh's case the floods took that and much more - 16 goats, 10 cows, clothing, farming tools, cooking utensils, crockery and his daughter's dowry, which cost 150,000 rupees ($1,745).
Nonetheless the poor tenant farmer welcomed us with a warm smile and a slaughtered goat - hospitality he could ill afford.
He led us to his makeshift shelter, cobbled together from bits of wood and twig. The villagers are rebuilding with whatever they can scavenge. We were the first outsiders they had seen since coming back from a relief camp.
Ilahi Bakhsh - wiry and slight - looked shrunken by the hunger, humiliation and loss of recent weeks. He sat on his only piece of furniture - a traditional woven bed called a charpoy.
"We've been running around, chasing all these aid agencies," he said. "But we have received nothing. We will only survive if God gives us something. Government is for the rich, not for the poor."
As he spoke his two wives sat in silence on the ground, side by side, kneeding dough by hand before baking bread on an open fire. Within days the little food they brought back from a relief camp will be gone.
"I think nobody cares about us," Ilahi Bakhsh said, holding his six-year-old son Naseeb Ullah close to his chest.
"If the government was planning to do something for us, they should have done it by now. I have to think that no-one is going to help us."
This village without hope is on the flight path of American helicopters which take off from nearby Pano Aqil. Every day locals see them fly overhead, carrying aid for other places. American officials say the destinations are agreed with Pakistani officials and aid agencies.
In the hut next door to Ilahi Bakhsh we found his elderly neighbour Sat Bai - one of those he helped to rescue.
She greeted me with a blessing, and a firm handshake, but like the rest of the villagers she has been weakened.
"We're getting sick," she said, "and the medicines are gone. Everything is gone. Nothing is left here of what I had."
Another neighbour, Hanifa Khatoon, was setting out across the fields, carrying her feverish three-year-old son, Mohammed Azeem. His body was like a dead weight in her slender arms. The clinic is almost a three hours walk away so we gave them a lift.
Mohammed Azeem was examined by a local doctor, Shankar Lal, who suspected malaria. He said the boy should recover, with medication and a good diet. "Nutrition is the main thing," he said, repeatedly.
But how can a hungry village feed a sick child ?
That is one of many problems facing Ilahi Bakhsh and his neighbours. Every day they come together to talk, a group of broken men - haunted by what they have lost and worried about the future.
They say no-one in the village has been able to obtain a Watan card - the ATM-type card with which flood victims are supposed to be able to get government compensation.
Affected families have been promised 100,000 rupees ($1,164).
It's a familiar complaint in the south - one we heard frequently during our recent return to Sindh province.
'Dying of hunger'
Many say the powerless have received little or no help, while aid has been diverted to the powerful - local landlords or politicians who funnel it to their cronies.
Some say you need to pay a bribe to get a card. It seems the floods have brought a fresh harvest of Pakistan's perennial crop - corruption.
Ilahi Bakhsh's neighbours say the only thing they have been getting from local officials is the run-around.
"We cried to the local administrator," said a villager called Allah Dinna.
"We said our children are dying of hunger. If you don't listen who will? He said go to the government records office, but they said our names weren't even on the list."
In late afternoon, Ilahi Bakhsh looked on as a tractor ploughed his fields. It's time for the planting of the next wheat crop.
He managed to borrow for the tractor but cannot borrow for the seeds. Nor can he turn to his neighbours who are equally destitute.
"No-one is coming to help us," he said.
"Not the government, or aid agencies, or any rich man, or any official. Now we have very little of our rations left. The poor will die in the end."
A man who helped to save a village hasn't a soul to help him.