By Jessica Howell, Catholic Relief Services (CRS is a Caritas member)
The early days of last August seemed fairly unremarkable for the small Pakistani village of Rajo Bhayo, until the Indus River – swollen from days of unending monsoon rains in the north – breached a protective embankment nearby and came swirling towards the village.
Villagers had about an hour to prepare before the flood hit them. “We did not understand what was happening to us when the waters came,” says Soomri, a 75-year old mother of five and grandmother of 23. Panic ensued, with people fleeing to higher ground as quickly as they could, watching their entire village disappear under rapidly-rising water.
Situated in the northeast part of Pakistan’s Sindh province, the village of Rajo Bhayo used to be a bustling farming and fishing community in a fertile swath of land near the Indus River. Now, it’s a barren desert, buried below five feet of sand left behind by the flood waters that tore through here in late summer.
The floods spared nothing – every single house in the community was destroyed, over three-quarters of the livestock drowned, and fishponds and wheat fields were inundated with water. But livelihoods and homes were not the only things lost.
Sumar, a soft-spoken older man with tufts of white hair peeking from under his hat, appears much older than his 55 years. Grief seems to hunch his shoulders and line his face, and for good reason: four of his six children drowned in the floods. “I was in such a panic that day,” he remembers. “I couldn’t take all my children with me.”
Without a place to sleep, Soomri, Sumar and the other community members slept outside in the open air for a month. It was cold and uncomfortable and frightening, especially for the children. “People were hopeless at the beginning,” says Sumar. “You could see it on their faces.”
The flood waters slowly receded and community members returned to their land … but everything they knew as Rajo Bhayo was now beneath five feet of sand. Some roofs stuck through the ground, but mostly it was just sand in every direction. Community members tried to salvage what they could. Some were able to dig out belongings and beds; others just tried to scavenge pieces of wood and brick to rebuild with. Sumar eventually found the bodies of his four children and buried them at the edge of the village.
Catholic Relief Services, a Caritas member operational in Pakistan came to Rajo Bhayo in the wake of the devastating floods to build transitional shelters. The structures, made of bamboo and covered in tarps to keep out moisture, can sleep a whole family. Working with the Research and Development Foundation (RDF), CRS built a model in the community and then provided the materials for 86 more shelters. With the help of skilled laborers hired and trained by CRS and RDF, the people of Rajo Bhayo constructed shelter after shelter on their land. Now, all 550 people are sleeping in them.
“The shelters saved us,” Soomri says. Sharing her space with her son, Inatullah, and his seven children, Soomri expresses pride in owning her own home again. “The children are safe now and we are very happy to live here … it is like my palace.” Sumar, too, is grateful for a place to sleep. While he aches for the children he lost, he takes comfort in the security of a home for his children and grandchildren – who have long lives ahead of them. Despite the uncertainty, Soomri sounds optimistic about the days ahead. “We are not afraid for the future because we have shelter.”