Pakistan: We’re trying to make a miracle happen

August 17, 2010

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Pakistan: We’re trying to make a miracle happen

Mr Aleem Shah is MSF’s deputy head of mission in Pakistan. He describes the first days of helping people caught up in the flooding in the southern regions of Pakistan.

“Straight away there were rumours about many affected areas. Our team based in Usta Muhammad has been very busy, getting out to remote communities in Baluchistan, handing out emergency relief kits and starting medical treatment.

Bakhtirabad was the first place they started working. The town was completely covered by water and most of the homes had been destroyed. It was quite complicated because the town gets its drinking water by train and the floods have completely destroyed the railway station and 15km of track. So our project coordinator and some of the doctors organised a distribution of 750 hygiene kits, cooking sets, plastic sheeting for making shelters and lots of jerry cans for safe water. We were the first organisation the people had seen coming to help them. Most people there hadn’t known the flood was coming. During the evening the water simply rose around them and they didn’t have time to save food, water, anything. A lot of people jumped into the river and made their way to a small deck that’s above the water and that’s where they have remained.

It has been hard to know which places have been worst hit and the only way for us to know where to concentrate our efforts has been to do some quick assessments, to see what’s really happening and to work out what people need. A few days ago we heard that the flood was getting bad in the area around Sukkur, in the Indus valley in Sindh province.

I went out there with a paramedic to see what assistance they needed, and found out for myself what it’s like to be trapped by the floods. We were driving across a flat plain and the flood water was coming up slowly from the south. There was about six inches of water on the road, which was no problem for our 4x4. But then suddenly the direction of flow changed – water started flooding down from the north. This was completely different, very fast. The water level just started rising dramatically. Our vehicle stopped and we just managed to push it to a small hill where there was a petrol station. It was the only place I could take refuge and I was trapped on the roof there for 30 hours.

Around the petrol station was a village of about 200 mud houses, built up slightly higher than the surrounding plain. I could see that all the houses nearby were being destroyed by the flood water. People were swimming across to our roof, or using inner tubes as rafts. They wanted to know whether I was going to be rescued and they said I needn’t worry about security because they would make sure I was safe. They were asking me whether I was a doctor and was my organisation going to come and bring them assistance. Their food was only going to last for a few days and they were waiting for some miracle to happen, for some help to come from somewhere. As night fell, most of these people went back to the remains of their houses to try to recover what was left of their belongings.

The water level kept changing quite suddenly and that’s when I said to myself that this was getting dangerous. MSF wanted me to try to get out of there as soon as possible, but there was nothing they could do at that moment. I tried all sorts of things but for at least 10km in every direction there was just water and I’m not a good swimmer. As night approached it was quite worrying because there were lots of snakes in the water, I saw them myself. In a way they were also displaced and were seeking refuge. I was starting to get quite afraid because when you are cut off like that a snake bite is really dangerous.

Towards the end of the second day, a chopper came to drop some ration packs and it collected me and took me back to Sukkur. Now I’m back on dry land I can carry on coordinating our teams’ activities. We’ll work on making that miracle happen that these people so desperately need.

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