By Elli Xenou, Caritas Coordinator Pakistan
I was at home in Athens on summer vacations when the phone rang. Cordaid’s project manager (Cordaid is Caritas Netherlands) sounded worried: “It’s raining two days now non-stop” he said, “something big is going to happen”. Then the first images of floods and destruction made it to the TV News. KPK Province of Pakistan, the area that was plagued by the IDP crisis last year, the area where most of NGOs were working still trying to alleviate the suffering of IDPs and conflict- affected populations, perhaps the most challenging area of Pakistan on the back of the tribal belt, heavily struck by militancy and talibanization was on the verge of a new disaster.
Kabul River rose above containable limits. The motorway linking Peshawar and Islamabad closed as the water started spilling over the road. The next phone call I received was from a colleague who was living in Nowshera. Although an experienced humanitarian worker herself, she sounded desperate: “All access to Nowshera is through boats or air. My niece and her in-laws were rescued by boat. I know people are displaced everywhere. They have lost their belongings, houses, and in some cases family members. My family is also included in these people. Drinking water is getting scarce as the need is higher than what is available. My niece said Helies are flying but aid has not been dropped there.
I would really appreciate if you can bring this up for the attention of the Caritas family and ask for possibilities of immediate assistance. Any help will be highly appreciated”.
During her next phone call she said something even more alarming: “Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people are tapped. The city is no more. Now it’s the time of rescue. Relief will come later”. I contacted the Nazim of Shangla, a remote area at the North of KPK, where Cordaid was working in support of conflict affected people offering health services. He couldn’t spend too much time on the phone: “It’s worse than the earthquake” he said. I knew it was time to return to Pakistan.
The next month passed into frenzy. We watched with horror as the water after destroying parts of KPK moved to flood Punjab and Sindh Provinces. Entire villages and cities were evacuated. UN and NGOs made gigantic efforts to rapidly expand and extend assistance to areas never touched by them; far flung areas at the south of Pakistan, stretching thousands and thousands of kilometers actors the Hindus River. Coordination and planning meetings were taking place endless times per day. Emails were exchanged at 03.00 and 04.00hrs in the night. Night became day for humanitarian workers who continued working non-stop and yet the magnitude and spread of the disaster overwhelmed us.
The rain continued throughout the month of August. Thousands of flood affected people from Noweshera and Charssada evacuated their villages and were residing at the sides of the motorway, desperate. Pakistani citizens were at their own initiative buying relief items such as water and milk and were throwing them out of their cars as they were passing by to help them. In Shangla, the water drowned bridges, electric towers, roads and public infrastructure. Parts of land at the sides of the river were washed away. Schools and Health Centers –recently renovated after the earthquake and the IDP crisis- were reduced to rumble. Cordaid’s medical teams started using donkeys to reach cut off villages. Doctors and nurses were walking 12 hours, carrying equipment and medicines on their shoulders in order to assist the wounded, the chronic patients, the people in shock. At the same time, Catholic Relief Service (CRS is a Caritas member also operational in Pakistan) colleagues started distributed relief items and working to repair water schemes in order to provide safe drinking water to the affected. The logistics challenge was immense. Kohistan –even further north- was inaccessible, news about children dying due to lack of medicines were reaching us. The main Karakoram highway connecting Pakistan to China remained closed. In contact with each other, we tried to device new ways to cooperate and help. Cordaid doctors remained to remote and insecure locations for weeks in a row in order to assist the flood affected. In September –during Eid ul Fitr celebration- they finally made it back to Islamabad for the first time in order to get together and share dinner. “You‘ve made us proud” I said and I meant it.
Pakistan became front line news once again. Journalists and foreign ministers, more NGO and UN workers were rushed into the country. Their message: ”Help is needed, people are trapped in water, public and private properties have been lost throughout the country, the terrain is vast, the needs are huge, what to do, where to start?”
At Athens airport, waiting for my flight back, I received the first phone call on behalf of the Caritas family: “we should come together, we should work on a joint appeal, the disaster is huge”. Yes, we should. And it won’t be the first time. Caritas family in Pakistan had come together again last year in order to coordinate and magnify its response to the conflict in Swat. We had then managed to support thousands of people in KPK province in many different areas such as food, health, and shelter in order to capitalize on the diverse experience of the different delegations. The example had already been set back then. We now had to re-activate having to respond to an even more challenging disaster. We had to bring in more expertise, more human capital, more funds, more relief items, more medicine, more doctors, more specialists, more ideas to overcome the hurdles. More needed and still needs to be done; more and faster. Flood affected could and cannot wait.
And then gradually things started falling into place. The Caritas family as well as the entire humanitarian community organised itself and scaled up the delivery of assistance; more and more beneficiaries were reached, more relief items were distributed to the needy, more patients were treated by our doctors. All our efforts geared up; more were provided with shelter, with clean water with livestock to rebuild their lives.
6 months after, it sometimes seems like 6 days. It is amazing how quickly time passed. How many things have been done but –alas- how many more remain to be done.
We Caritas are continuing.
Khyber-Pahtunkhwa, former NWFP Province. Pakistan’s western Frontier with Afghanistan
IDPs: Internally Displace People: Above 2 million people –mainly of Swat valley- left their homes on 2009 to escape the escalating conflict between Pakistani Army and Taliban insurgents in one of the biggest displacements of the latest years.
Nazim: Administrative rank that no longer exists. Equivalent to mayor.