Tensions build as flood-hit Pakistanis flee to the hills
Makli, Pakistan (AFP) Aug 31, 2010
On a hillside in flood-ravaged southern Pakistan, a famous Sufi burial site is crowded with families -- their pilgrimage less about religious devotion than the simple matter of survival.
With night about to fall, tensions rise at the makeshift camp, where hunger and anger are feeding a growing sense of anarchy as the flood victims look down from the black hills on their water-logged villages.
Husain Mala, 25, from Sujawal, a city of 120,000 people about 50 kilometres (30 miles) away which has been lost for now to the floods, sits with a dozen other young men watching the traffic for signs of aid trucks bringing food.
For the month of Ramadan the hour before dusk, when the daily fast can be broken, is the most tense, as hunger pangs grow after a long day under a blazing sun.
Tens of thousands of peasants displaced by the floods have fled to the rocky hillsides, some camped in shade amid mausoleums of chiselled stone, others grazing their flocks between the graves of thousands of Islamic Sufi saints.
They wait for 7:00 pm to come when they can join their families for iftar, the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast, but only a few fleeing the floods in haste were able to come with food supplies and aid handouts are scarce.
"We save the food and money we have for our children so they can survive," said Gulam Qadir, in his 50s, sweat pooling around the band of his purple turban.
The bazaars in the nearby city of Thatta are empty, since the authorities ordered the evacuation of its 300,000 inhabitants at the weekend, exacerbating the food crisis.
An aid agency van stops in front of a small group of women and children begging for supplies -- a hand throws out a box filled with supplies and the vehicle sets off again immediately, escaping the dozens of people already starting to run down the hills in its direction.
Sometimes to prevent a fight erupting, charities en route to an official relief camp will hand over bags of flour, pulses, rice or sugar, though it is not enough for the starving young men who often try to cling to the trucks.
"They're treating us like animals. They just throw food boxes, without taking care of who gets it -- so people fight between each other -- or they don't give anything," said Husain.
"Two or three of our people have broken legs or arms from falling from the trucks," he said.
Despite the escalating tension, police said the situation was "under control" besides some "minor incidents".
But authorities say they are worried, and try to direct the displaced families to camps away from the floods that have wreaked most devastation in the southern province of Sindh where Makli lies.
"We've set up a relief camp for 40,000 people in Karachi, but no one turned up there yet," said Zulfiqar Mirza from the Sindh interior ministry, referring to the city that lies more than 100 kilometres from Makli.
"We guarantee that they will get all the assistance they need there."
That won't convince Babur Salangi, 31, also from Sujawal, who like many others said he thinks that "there is no support in the camps."
"I am grateful to the government because they saved our lives by sending trucks to take us," he said.
"But how can I celebrate iftar? Everything I have left is this," he said, pointing at the tatty green shirt covering his back.
earlier related report
Torrential monsoon rains triggered massive floods that have moved steadily from north to south over the past month, engulfing a fifth of the volatile country and affecting 17 million of Pakistan's 167 million people.
The floods have washed away huge swathes of the rich farmland on which the country's struggling economy depends.
"There is a triple threat unfolding as this crisis widens and deepens," World Food Programme chief Josette Sheeran said at a press conference with other United Nations officials in Islamabad, after visiting flooded areas.
"People have lost seeds, crops and their incomes, leaving them vulnerable to hunger, homelessness and desperation -- the situation is extremely critical," she said.
Anthony Lake, chief of the UN children's fund Unicef, said that the disaster had affected nearly 8.6 million children.
"In many ways it is a children's emergency," Lake said.
"There is also a potential second wave of death from waterborne diseases. This is likely to get much worse if we can't reach people with clean water, adequate nutrition, sanitation and vaccination," he said.
Meanwhile floodwaters swept towards two small southern towns as authorities managed finally to plug a breach in defences across the Indus river at nearby Thatta city.
Pakistani troops and city workers had been battling over the weekend to save Thatta, with most of the population of 300,000 fleeing the advancing waters.
"Thatta city has been declared safe after a breach in the river caused by floods at nearby Faqir Jo Goth village was fully plugged," senior city official Hadi Bakhsh Kalhoro told AFP.
But he said the fast-moving waters that left the low-lying town of Sujawal submerged on Sunday were now threatening the towns of Jati and Choohar Jamali, where official warnings have been issued to residents to evacuate.
"We are making efforts to save the two towns which have a combined population of more than 100,000," Kalhoro said.
Most people had already returned to Thatta, he said, on the western bank of the swollen Indus.
But inundated Sujawal was mostly empty on Tuesday, as water flowed down its streets and troops offloaded rubber boats from their vehicles to rescue the remaining few, an AFP reporter on the scene said.
Sindh government spokesman Jameel Soomro told AFP that 147 people had been killed in the province, mostly as a result of disease triggered by the floods, and most of them women and children.
Southern Sindh is the worst-affected province, with 19 of its 23 districts ravaged as floodwaters have swollen the raging Indus river to 40 times its usual volume.
One million people have been displaced over the past few days alone.
India on Tuesday offered another 20 million dollars in flood aid to Pakistan, boosting efforts to build goodwill between the estranged neighbours.
Pakistan's government has confirmed 1,645 people dead and 2,479 injured but officials warn that millions are at risk from food shortages and disease.
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