Life begins again in Pakistan’s Northwest

News and Press Release
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Text and Photos by Peter Biro

April 25, 2011 - The village of Zor Kaleh is nestled in a valley at an altitude of some 2,300 meters (7,500 feet) in Pakistan’s magnificent upper Swat valley. The snow-covered peaks of the Hindu Kush mountain range surround the village with its quaint wooden houses and vegetable gardens.

The 9,000 people here, like in many of Swat’s hamlets, have gone through unimaginable suffering in the course of just two years; first when the Pakistani military launched an offensive to drive out Taliban militants from the area and then by the worst floods in Pakistan’s history.

“It has been very difficult,” admits Abdul Jabar, a Zor Kaleh farmer. “During the fighting we were unable to eat anything but small amounts of vegetables that we were growing in our backyards.”

Surrounded by retreating Taliban fighters, the people of Zor Kaleh were unable to leave their houses for three months. Shelling from the advancing Pakistani army destroyed several houses before the Taliban were defeated in the summer of 2009.

“We immediately started to rebuild our houses,” Jabar said. “But just as life was returning to normal, the floods destroyed everything again.”

The village’s many streams, shooting down from the mountains, overflowed and destroyed everything in their path. Zor Kaleh lost all its farmland to the water masses, which also swept away two dozen houses.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) arrived in Zor Kaleh soon after the flooding and, after consulting with the villagers, building a functioning water system was singled out as a priority. Now, more than six months after flood waters inundated one-fifth of Pakistan's total land area, life is slowly returning to normal again.

“This is the first time we have running water in the village,” said Abdul Hakim, another villager. “Before, we had to go up into the mountains to collect water. It took four hours to bring down ten liters.”

During the past two years, almost 830,000 people in northwestern Pakistan have received IRC assistance under a reconstruction program called Kalay Yozai or “Home Together” in the Pashtu language. Aid workers, guided and assisted by villagers themselves, not only installed water systems and irrigation canals, but also distributed blankets, cooking ware and other relief supplies.

Food, however, remains a problem. Four consecutive crops have been lost due to the conflict and the floods. The villagers have now almost depleted their old food stocks.

“We had saved some wheat and maize,” Hakim said. “But we have very little left.”

While villagers await their new harvest, they are forced to buy food in the surrounding markets. But money is also scarce. Immediately after the floods, the IRC helped restore the area’s broken economy by paying villagers to rebuild roads, vital for local trade, that were washed away after flood waters submerged all infrastructure in the area.

“We have seen enough trouble in two years to last a lifetime,” Hakim said. “Now it is time to look forward again.”