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Swat rebuilds year after Pakistan floods
by Staff Writers
Ariana, Pakistan (AFP) July 24, 2011

A year after floods swept away homes and livelihoods, Pakistani survivors of a Taliban uprising are courting fresh disaster in the picturesque Swat valley by refusing to leave for higher ground.

It was about 7pm on July 29 when Sayed Zamin Khan, 55, lent over his terrace, transfixed as the muddy Swat river swallowed one by one the neighbours' homes which were built, like the rest of the hamlet of Ariana, beside the water.

"It's OK, it is safe!" he yelled at his nephew Shujat Ali, who stood back, worried, keeping his distance.

"Then the ground collapsed and he drowned in the river with part of his house and terrace," remembered a sad Ali, a 36-year-old shopkeeper with a pale complexion and a mop of ginger hair.

There were 45 houses in Ariana before Pakistan's worst floods left 20 percent of the country underwater last summer, affecting 21 million people.

But in less than 24 hours, only two remained, at the back of the village furthest from the water, those owned by Ali and his family.

Officials say 150 people died in the Swat valley with 3,000 homes destroyed and 200,000 residents displaced in a mountainous area already struggling to rebuild after a two-year Taliban insurgency.

District commissioner Kamran Rehman Khan is upbeat, telling AFP from the comfort of his office in Mingora, 250 kilometres (156 miles) northwest of Islamabad, that reconstruction work is on track.

"Except in the (northern) Kalam area, where we have to rebuild a solid road and put back city power, there are no more big problems. All the work should be finished in six months or a year," he said.

Above all, it is the army that local residents thank.

The forces were a godsend for survivors of the 2007-2009 Taliban uprising, sending in 30,000 soldiers and evicting militants who beheaded government workers, shut shops and burnt schools to impose a harsh brand of sharia law.

"The presence of the army was a blessing," said Zahid Khan, head of the Sarhad Rural Support Programme, the largest charity in the area, financed by Western donors such as the United Nations and United States.

"Forty-two bridges were destroyed and the army rebuilt them with temporary structures in 35 to 40 days," he said.

"The army helped us a lot," Khan agreed, even if two years after they declared Swat back under control they have yet to rescind responsibility to civilian administrators.

Many criticised the government last year for its seemingly insufficient response to the scale of the floods, presented by aid agencies as worse than the 2005 earthquake that killed 73,000 in Pakistan.

Victims qualified for handouts of 20,000 to 25,000 rupees ($234 to $292), but promises of 100,000 rupees ($1,170) for those who lost their homes have largely not materialised.

Along the churning Swat river, those who lost homes have not waited for government handouts to rebuild.

Mian Mohammed Iqbal, 46, lost everything -- his life savings of two million rupees ($23,223) and his business of 25 years -- when muddy and sandy waters inundated his clothes shop in the village of Behrain.

Like everyone in the valley, he fears new floods and has rented another premises higher up in town to keep his stock.

Last month, Pakistan's national disaster management authority warned that floods triggered by monsoon rains this year could affect up to six million.

Behrain, a magnificent setting where little houses cling to mountain crags overlooking the confluence of two rivers, was devastated last year.

Hotels favoured by tourists looking to escape the punishing heat of the Pakistani plains for the balmy temperatures of a mountain summer were ruined, including Mohammed Siddiq's little five-room guest house.

The 51-year-old knows the authorities warned him to build further away from the river but, like other survivors, he is ignoring the advice.

"I know it's dangerous, but I don't have any other alternative," said the father-of-seven.

Pakistanis in Swat said they preferred to stay put, protected by the army and with tourists returning, rather than live an uncertain exile in the suburbs of big cities, congested and crime ridden.

Ali and his family of 15 have also decided to stay. "We don't have any other choice," he said.

Perched on a cliff a dozen metres above the river bed, his house survived as an accident of nature. Ali has put down metal supports and cement to strengthen the foundations, but nothing is certain.

The family minimise what risks they can: when it rains, even in the middle of the night, they shelter in a neighbouring house, then return after the storm.

"Our house has a last chance," said Ali. "But if there is flooding again, it will be over."

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