The consequences of disaster

A personal account of the devastation of the Pakistan floods

By Maha Ahmad

This past July, Pakistan—the country of my parents, the country of my childhood—was hit with another devastating tragedy. It was the usual, expected monsoon season, but this time the rains came with an unearthly force and refused to halt. Like many other Pakistani-Americans, I watched in pain from the comfort of my Chicago home as my country drowned deeper and deeper in the infamous floods that would soon be described as the worst natural disaster in recent history.

I had scheduled a trip to Pakistan before the floods happened and arrived in Lahore on August 16th, a few days after Ramadan began. Although Lahore was not affected by the floods, the city’s spirit had completely changed. The once vibrant city had turned somber and signs of the flood’s destruction were everywhere. Tents were collecting food and clothing on every street corner, school children walked the bazaars and streets to collect donations, and volunteers on speakerphones urged passersby to donate. My family and I watched the news in silence every morning at suhoor, the pre-dawn meal that precedes each day of fasting. We struggled to eat as newscasters announced the millions without food and clean water.

We then began to discuss the idea of going to Muzaffargarh, a town about nine hours away from Lahore, to deliver bags of food that we would prepare. My family and I began looking for a local NGO that we could go to the affected areas with. We dropped off the majority of our bags at the Imran Khan Foundation, while the remainder was taken in our car. We met up later with workers from an NGO called Eisaar Trust to help distribute these essentials.

Eisaar Trust had chosen a village in Kot Addu, about an hour ahead of Muzaffargarh, to set up their relief efforts. We first stopped in Muzaffargarh and were horrified at what we saw. For miles and miles, there was nothing but water. The water from the main road had subsided in this area, but it was still engulfing the entire landscape of Muzaffargarh. In the small tracts of dry land were the relief camps—cramped lines of tents with displaced people. The first camp we visited was run by Islamic Relief and had about 3,000 people and 300 families living in tents. The organizers of the IR camp told us that the residents were being plagued with a host of skin problems, along with gastrointestinal troubles, eye infections, and malaria. Where were the doctors? Another camp that we stopped at before entering Kot Addu was run by the Turkish Red Crescent. The camp only had food supplies for another 15 days and was in dire need of flour, rice, and lentils. What would happen after 15 days? About 700 people were residing there.

Finally, we reached Kot Addu and met with the members of the Eisaar Trust. They distributed the daily food supplies to each family member on their list, and we gave them our bags to add to their supply. The villagers proceeded to give us a tour of the area, which was completely submerged in water just a few weeks ago. At this point, the villagers were trying to rebuild their lost homes and were making bricks for their new houses. I watched in horror as I passed by the abandoned homes that had fallen victim to the floods—broken beds and tables and crumbled walls. It was essentially a complete annihilation of these people’s former lives. As I stood in a haze of disbelief, a man approached me and insisted that I come see his home. He told me his name was Muhammad Sabir and then stood on top of a pile of rubble and broken objects and said in tears:

“This is my home. The water was up to my roof and it was running like a canal. My tractor and trolley that I used for harvesting have been destroyed. All my stuff is destroyed. My house is destroyed. No one is with me. I am by myself.”

Before I left Kot Addu, he looked at me again and cried while handing me copies of his ID card. “Please come back to help me,” he said. I took the ID cards and nodded, while every part of me overflowed with guilt at the thought of not being able to do what he was imploring me.

It is precisely because of this reason that I am deeply frustrated with the response of the international community. Billions are needed for immediate relief and long-term rehabilitation. However, claims of corruption and terrorism are used as excuses to ignore the crisis in Pakistan even though legitimate organizations such as the Imran Khan Foundation, Eisaar Trust, and the Human Development Foundation are doing everything they can to provide relief for the victims. Ordinary Pakistanis are doing even more. I had the opportunity to visit an HDF clinic in a poor village near Lahore two weeks prior to going to Kot Addu. The clinic coordinator had told volunteers from the village that my family and I were headed to the flood-affected areas. One of the young girls from the group, Sana Yusuf, looked me straight in the eye and said, “I know we are not fit to give others anything, for we barely have anything ourselves, but we want to help our country. I will tell the rest of the villagers to gather what they can.”

If Sana is ready to do her part in flood relief, then we, as students at the University of Chicago, with every resource at our disposal, should be more than ready to do the same. Though I took Muhammad Sabir’s ID card with guilt and uncertainty, I hope I am right in saying that the University of Chicago and its students care and will not fail Pakistan. In my three years here, I have come to see the students at the U of C as brilliant, resourceful, and civic-minded individuals. Now, we are faced with the challenge of assisting Pakistan in its time of crisis and all these qualities are needed. I urge us to not replicate the disappointing response of the international community to this disaster. I urge us to care. Our sense of responsibility to our fellow citizens of the world and our collective conscience are alive and well. I know this because I witnessed it firsthand in the way this campus and the students mobilized in response to the earthquake in Haiti. Now, we face yet another humanitarian crisis—one of the worst of our time. Pakistan is calling. Humanity is calling. Will you answer the call?

Maha Ahmad is a third-year in the College majoring in Biology.