[Originally published in The Nation]
Swat has been well-known in Pakistan throughout its history. Initially home to the flourishing Gandhara civilisation 3000 BC; then dubbed as the ‘Switzerland of Pakistan’ for its scenic beauty, a ski resort and a plethora of tourist resorts. However, for the past few years it has been in the news for being inhabited by militants and after a successful military operation, now for the 60 plus bridges that were destroyed by the recent flash floods, cutting off supply and transport routes and leaving thousands stranded up in the northern part of the division.
As part of the Future Leaders of Pakistan (FLP) flood relief efforts, I took a team of volunteers along with a truck loaded with relief goods to Saidu Sharif, Swat, on August 13, 2010. We travelled by bus, the ride taking us four and a half hours from Islamabad, and the ruthless heavy rain making us rely on the blessings of the first Friday of Ramazan to survive! We saw the Indus spread beyond the two strong embankments into the fields of cash and food crops growing around it, making islands out of the huts and houses near the banks. We also saw the historic Chakdara Bridge that used to connect Dir with Swat and the rest of the country until recently; now a makeshift wooden bridge set up by the army being the only means of commuting, that too by foot.
Upon entering the Swat division, the effects of the flash floods were clearly visible. Half-bridges, tilted trees, broken electricity poles, and collapsed walls established the [dis]order. But upon entering the marketplace, it was delightful to see the Pakistani flag painted on almost every shutter, wall, and board, and inscriptions of Pakistan Zindabad. This has been done to symbolise the cleansing of militants from the area, and the loyalty of the people to the state.
Once in Swat, we made a trip with our truck to the Circuit House – the army base in Saidu Sharif – where we handed over 100 ration packages and 100 bags of flour to the Pakistan army to airlift to Kalam and Bahrain, the cut-off populated towns of northern Swat.
Our next stop was the Bangladesh village – an analogous name due to the frequent flooding of this area. But the water marks on what was left of walls in this village were testimony of the fact that the latest flood was of an unprecedented level, damaging basic infrastructure, and forcing the villagers to remain either on rooftops or at villages away from the inundated Bangladesh.
In mountainous areas like Swat, the flood water does not stay for long, but the fiercely gushing flash floods often cause immense damage. Hence, camps with tents are not common, as most people either return back to their homes to start rebuilding, or – in the case of extreme damage – stay with relatives, friends, or a generous family of which there is no dearth in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa that is known for its hospitable people. Even the smallest of houses host around 40 people at a time, a trend that has continued from the IDP days during the military operation.
A local community member had prepared a list of the worst-affected families, and according to the names on the list, ration packages and flour bags were distributed upon checking the National Identity Card of the survivor. With most sources of income for the inhabitants of the area destroyed, and sky-rocketing prices in the markets due to shortage in supply have made food aid a top priority along with medicines.
The innate human tendency to secure one’s survival was especially evident in this area as the children of those who had already been given rations climbed the truck from the sides to ask for more supplies. The people in Swat have been vulnerable to the unexpected and bizarre happenings in their area, and the floods present a gloomier picture as all the famous orchards and fields of Swat have been rendered unproductive for this season. Therefore, the permanence of the sight of affordable ration packs could be highly doubted by anyone in such a traumatic situation.
It is this insecurity which has to be duly understood – not only by the government and aid agencies, but also by each and every citizen of Pakistan – and relief has to continue, in different forms, and made sustainable in the coming months in order for the survivors of the worst natural disaster to persevere, like they have, and ultimately be able to support themselves.
Future Leaders of Pakistan are sending two trucks loaded with relief for flood survivors each week in the coming months.