South Asia

After Pakistan floods, bridges key to survival in Swat

Local people queue to cross the bridge
Image caption Villagers have no choice but to queue at the crossing with their heavy goods

The midday sun casts no shadows as it glares straight down on a queue of hunched figures.

Almost heel to toe, around a hundred men stand in 40C heat, each carrying as much as they are able: 40kg (88lbs) bags of flour, cement, even large plastic tubing or food from the market two hours' walk away.

Sweat drips off their noses, forming dark scars in the dust. They are waiting to get on the bridge but there is only half of it left.

The ropes and makeshift planks at either end cannot take too many people at once, so the lines keep growing.

The Red Bridge, as it is called, was a huge red steel and concrete structure. It is difficult to imagine the strength of the roaring waters which ripped it away.

"When the bridge was lost, people were literally crying," says Dr Sardar Uddim, who lives locally.

"They were separated from their families. They were terrified. It was the first thing we knew we had to fix, or the people in the towns further up could starve."

Impossible task

Using what they could find, the army rebuilt the link between the communities here.

Image caption Aid agencies say restoring bridges is more important than dropping relief supplies

But this bridge tells the story of the Swat valley. Here, every single bridge was damaged, leaving many villages isolated.

Aid drops simply cannot cover all of the families here, some of them stranded in their own homes.

The UN has appealed for more helicopters, but the mountainous terrain makes it an impossible task.

In places the river valley is now twice its original width and the flood waters have demolished the cliffs so cleanly it looks like it was cut with a knife.

Bits of houses and even a power station lie stranded in the waters.

The National Disaster Management Agency spokesman, Ahmed Kamal, says it is bridges, not aid drops, that are the priority here.

"Frankly, the bridges are the most important thing. They are the main line of connection, of communication - until they are replaced, all aid efforts are at a standstill."

With no roads left, the only way to get to towns like Madyan is on foot.

Behind lines of men, somehow managing to keep their balance on the rocks wearing the flimsiest of plastic sandals, the scenery is stunning.

Watching the lines across the valley is Mobasher Hussein, a 21-year-old student. Unbelievably, he is here as a tourist.

He was here with his family and they got caught up in the floods.

"This was our hotel's multi-storey carpark," he says, pointing down at of what look like foundations, now barely visible. The rest are long gone.

"The strength of the water was amazing," he says.

"It took away people's livelihoods. I don't know how people will support their families because it will be some time before people come back"

"Swat was a tourist hub for all of Pakistan," explains Mobasher.

"Then the Taliban took over and it was very frightening here".

People had stopped visiting when the valley became more famous for beheadings and kidnappings, rather than the mountain air and local honey.

Since the army regained control, families had slowly started to come back. Then the floods came, "a double tragedy" as Mobasher put it.

Taliban fear

Agencies like Oxfam International have called for reconstruction not to be ignored in the rush to distribute aid.

Communication and the local economy are all reliant on the links which were smashed by the water.

Image caption The river is more than twice its normal size in some parts of the valley

Just down the road, shopkeeper Amiz Khan sits watching the lines of people waiting to cross the bridge.

Small businesses like his are the local economy here - there are no big companies or industry.

His shop used to be a stopping point for the busy traffic going over the Red Bridge.

"Everyone has lost something," he says. He hopes people will start to come through again soon.

"Business has dropped to zero since the floods. I have 9 children I must support."

We meet a Faqir Ahmed wandering amongst the ruins of the houses.

"First the Taliban destroyed our minds, now the floods have destroyed our homes," he shouts, to no-one in particular.

He is obviously traumatised, and wanders off, talking to himself.

He illustrates the huge challenge for Pakistan: while roads and bridges can be rebuilt, for others the scars will remain much deeper.

If you would like to make a donation to help people affected by the floods in Pakistan, you can do so through the UK's Disasters Emergency Committee at or by telephone on 0370 60 60 900.

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