An inventory of loss

Pakistan’s displaced families will confront the worst after the floods....

Written by New York Times | Published:August 20, 2010 12:18 am

A few days ago,I stood atop a 30-foot-high levee in Pakistan’s south Punjab,looking out as the waters from the greatest Indus River flood in memory flowed past,through orchards,swirling around a village. Twenty miles wide,the flood was almost dreamlike,the speeding water,as it streamed through the upper branches of trees,carrying along bits of brightly coloured plastic and clumps of grass.

Many of the displaced people had left the area,driving whatever was left of their herds,carrying whatever they were able to rescue. In Pakistan,your primary loyalty is to your “biraderi”,an untranslatable word,something like clan,but more visceral and entailing greater responsibility and connection. You marry among your biraderi,you must travel and be present when a member of your biraderi is married or buried and,in times of trouble,you stand by your biraderi. In Frost’s words,they are the people who,when you have to go there,they have to take you in.

The hundreds of people camped on the levee were those who had no biraderi outside the flooded area,or who couldn’t afford to make the journey to them. These families’ poverty and loss shone in the little piles of their belongings,the things they had carried with them when the water came: two or three cheap tin plates,a kettle. In one family’s encampment,discordantly,sat a dresser with a mirrored door — how did the man who had brought that through the floodwater think it would be useful?

I found most pitiful a family gathered around a prostrate brown-and-white brindled cow. The father told me that the cow had been lost in the water for four days. The people of this area recognise their cattle as easily as you or I recognise a cousin or neighbour. Someone passing by told the family that their cow had been found,and the father went and got it and led it to their little encampment. In the early morning the cow had collapsed,and I could see it would soon be dead.  The owner squatted next to it,sprinkling water into its mouth,as if it were possible to revive it. Driving back to my farm,an image of the cow’s ordeal kept coming to me. In the immensity of the unfolding tragedy,this littler one,this moment of its death,seemed comprehensible to me,significant.

It is difficult to convey the scope of what was lost by those who had laboured with axe and shovel to bring this land under cultivation. Fifty years ago,the area was all savannah,waving fields of reeds and elephant grass running for a thousand miles on both sides of the river. These people tamed the land,levelling it by hand,expanding their plots acre by acre,until they had conquered it all. They built solid houses and granaries,planted trees,raised mosques. This was their life’s work.

Now all that has been swept away. In the 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan,80,000 people died more or less at one blow; whereas the immediate death toll from this flood is likely to be in the low thousands. The loss of property,however,is catastrophic. It is as if a neutron bomb exploded overhead,but instead of killing the people and leaving their houses intact,it piled trees upon the houses and swept away the villages and crops and animals,leaving the people alive.

For months and even years,the people of the Indus Valley will not have sufficient income for food or clothing. They will rebuild,if they can afford it,by inches. The corrupt and impoverished Pakistani government cannot possibly make these people’s lives whole again. It’s not hard to imagine the potential for radicalisation in a country already rapidly turning to extremist political views,to envision the anarchy that may be unleashed if wealthier nations do not find a way to provide sufficient relief. This is not a problem that will go away,and it is the entire world’s problem. It is said,the most violent revolutions are the revolutions of the stomach.

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