Pakistan Floods: A bittersweet homecoming

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By Majda Shabbir in Islamabad

The landscape was barren, and the air foggy as the rickshaw stopped and Sofia, her mother, and sister-in-law stepped down to see the ruins of what was once their home.

After leaving their village in panic to save themselves during last year’s devastating floods, this was the first time the family had seen their home, now nothing but a random pile of bricks and sand. Their soft sobs filled the air. Walking on the debris of her house, Sofia recalls with a heavy heart, “This used to be my kitchen but it’s a pile of dust that I stand on now. The rest of the rooms were also washed away from under our feet.”

The district of Charsadda in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province in northern Pakistan had not experienced flooding in almost 90 years and was among the worst affected by the 2010 super floods. Almost 30,000 houses remain uninhabitable.

More than 150 families found refuge in a camp set up by the Pakistan Red Crescent Society (PRCS), with support from the Swiss Red Cross, at the city’s railway station. There they were provided with food and basic non-food items, like blankets, kitchen sets and tarpaulins.

But now, it was time for the families to leave the camp. Even though their houses were damaged or destroyed, they wanted to return to the familiar surroundings of their own villages. Moving day dawned with an air of excitement and anxiety. Women and children, alongside their husbands and fathers, emptied their tents, packing them up, getting them ready for the short trip home. Everywhere there was activity and cheery faces, although a few were misty-eyed as they had to say goodbye to their camp neighbours. They all exchanged cell phone numbers to keep in touch. These were friends in disaster, who lived through the misery and shared the hopes of moving on.

Sadly, what they were returning to was a home of shattered dreams. Down the road from Sofia’s house, Gulroze Khan, with his wife and four children, was busy setting up his tent in the yard of his damaged house, with the help of a group of PRCS volunteers. He is hopeful of starting afresh, saying his children deserve a better future. “All of my children used to attend school before we fled, but now their bags and books lie buried. They do not study anymore but I am determined to provide them the best of opportunities.”

It will definitely be a challenge. Many of these villagers live off of the produce they grow, but the thick layer of mud, sand and stones now carpeting the fields not only destroyed crops of sugarcane, maize, and tobacco, but also left the land unusable for at least two seasons. Many of the irrigation canal networks remain choked by sand and silt.

“We can’t leave them out in the cold to live shelterless, so our volunteers have put in every effort to settle these people on their land. We will help them as far as we can,” says Musarrat Shah, field officer, Swiss Red Cross.

That includes making the move home as smooth as possible, from arranging transportation, to carrying their valuables, to pitching tents in their yards. The months ahead will not be easy, but for families like Sofia’s and Gulroze Khan’s, they are taking steps forward by moving back to where they came from.