After spending the better part of the day at a relatively large relief camp, we sat together on the lawn of the Khazana restaurant in Khairpur until about midnight, sharing our thoughts on the overall situation with specific reference to our experiences of the day. It was the night before Eid and the plan to ‘celebrate’ the festival at the camp was part of the discussion.
This camp that I am referring to is actually called a ‘tent city’. Located on the main road between Khairpur and Sukkur, it consists of about 200 tents. Its population just exceeds 1,200. Naturally, the children are in a frightful majority — more than 600 are below the age of 15.
Now, I have decided to retain my focus on the ongoing deluge and its possible aftermath inspite of the shocking murder of Dr Imran Farooq of the MQM in London on Thursday. The grisly assassination of a leader who has played a significant role in the rise of an originally ethnic party is bound to have an impact on our politics, particularly in the context of how the MQM would come to terms with this tragic event.
That the crime was committed in London gives us some hope that it would be expertly investigated and may provide a number of revelations. Similar incidents that have taken place in Pakistan — and sadly there have been numerous enough to certify the process of brutalisation that the Sialkot lynching has symbolised — have not been properly investigated. We never find the culprits of crimes that subvert the very idea of justice in our minds.
In that sense, the coming days are likely to bring more headlines. As for speculation about what it means, we may have a lot to keep us mentally engaged. Incidentally, London was also the venue of the cricket scandals. Imagine what we would have done with similar allegations made in Pakistan. And London happens to be firmly embedded in our modern history. It is also bound to figure in how the present political machinations might unfold, with another side-show being staged by Musharraf.
Well, this has become a long diversion. I should return to my last week’s visit to Khairpur-Sukkur area. There are many more tent cities in the vicinity of the tent city I was able to explore in some detail. What I saw was really disturbing in the context of the timeless misery of the rural poor. But there are also some silver linings. The floods do provide an opportunity to plant the seeds of social change in Pakistan.
You get some idea of how immense this tragedy is when you drive from Karachi and make a stop at Jamshoro and then take the Indus Highway to find the flood waters lapping against the high thoroughfare. The flood situation has changed by the day and waters have receded from many places, though the Manchar Lake saga has just climaxed this weekend, more than six weeks after the onslaught began up in the north.
In any case, all of us who live in the large urban centres, far from where the raging torrents had rushed over an eternally thirsty land, need to have some personal and direct connection with this calamity. It certainly has touched the conscience of the world. Knowing that the floods will change Pakistan in many different ways, we have to be conscious of how it would — or should — affect our individual perceptions and aspirations. I think that Richard Halbrooke is right in a way when he says that the floods are Pakistan’s 9/11.
Against this perspective, my trip to Khairpur, with stopovers, that spread over three days was intended as an attempt to clarify or comprehend some thoughts that have flooded my mind. I know what I was able to encounter was manifestly insufficient as an evidence of the new realities that have erupted from this volcanic deluge. Still, I feel overwhelmed by the images that I gathered on this trip.
It may not be fair to focus on one tent city when there are thousands of relief camps all over the country and when social conditions vary place to place. One reason I was tempted and able to explore a particular location was that this tent city is run by the Indus Resource Centre, an NGO with which my wife Sadiqa is associated. This relationship allowed me some access to the working of and the structures of relief operations.
I should also make clear that the IRC tent city opened a window onto only one part of Sindh, because the victims gathered there came largely from the Jacobabad and Kashmore districts and the adjoining areas. Most of them, thus, belonged to the poorest of the poor in a heartlessly feudal terrain. We know about how the floods have revealed the deprivations of our people.
What I saw was incredible because most of the children there had never been to a school. Most victims said they had received no assistance from the feudal lords they dutifully vote for in every election. I know of exceptions in this regard. But I felt revolted by an anecdote related by a group of Karachi students who went to the interior with a truck of relief goods they had collected. On their way, they were treated to a feast by a local bigwig who himself did not seem to be responding to the misery and distress surrounding his haveli.
I, too, have a number of stories to tell that cannot be included in a column. The dominant impression I have is of children — malnourished and pitifully neglected. One mother had seventeen of them. Another could not remember if she had nine or ten children. There were a number of pregnancies, ticking like time-bombs. Some faces of little girls have stayed in my mind, asking questions I cannot answer.
But the gist of my conversation this week is the dire need for reflection — the kind we attempted on that warm night before the morning of Eid. It is easy to overstate the disaster that Pakistan has suffered. Yet there is no doubt about our inherent inefficiencies in dealing with it, particularly at the intellectual plane. In an article titled ‘The Food’, Michael Krepon of the Stimson Center has said: “Pakistan now faces an existential crisis that requires, for starters, clear thinking.” He has also noted that “disease gets a blank-check when existential threats do not prompt a re-thinking of root causes.”
So, what are the root causes of Pakistan’s present disasters? Alas, our rulers do not seem to be willing to sit and reflect on the entire situation. One sometimes wonders if they really care. Their feasts, in the high-security citadels of power, are continuing.