Deep in Pakistani flood zone, villagers refuse to flee submerged homes

KHAIPUR NATHANSHAH, Pakistan — Deep inside Pakistan’s flood zone, tens of thousands of people are refusing to leave their villages, frustrating already-overstretched relief efforts and threatening a dramatic spike in deaths, according to Pakistani officials.

Hundreds of villages have been flooded across Pakistan and are now reachable only by boat. Washington Post journalists secured rare media access to several submerged villages inside Dadu district, where the waters extend to the horizon in every direction.

The only evidence of the immense devastation below the surface are occasional slivers of a rooftop, mosque minarets, power lines, treetops and traffic signals half-obscured by the swampy waters.

About one-third of Pakistan is underwater according to some satellite imagery analysis. The flooding, caused by a combination of heavy monsoon rains and unusually high glacial melt, is the worst to hit the country in recorded history, Pakistani officials say. More than 33 million people have been affected, and almost 1,400 people have died. Nearly a third of the dead are children.

Every day, dozens of boats pass Raza Mohammad’s shelter of tree branches and reeds erected on a narrow retaining wall offering him a ride to higher ground, but each time he waves them away.

Even in the midst of this immense disaster, he refuses to leave. Fleeing now would mean leaving his livestock behind — all he has left of value after his village was inundated — and he doesn’t trust the government to take care of him and his family on dry land.

“To be honest I don’t want to stay here, but I cannot go without my livestock. I would be left with nothing,” he said.

Like many in rural areas of Sindh province, Mohammad and his family had been living on the equivalent of about four dollars a day. After the flood hit, he’s been unable to work. Without his animals, he wouldn’t be able to provide for his wife and three children, he said.

“We never thought the waters would reach this high, otherwise we would have left earlier and taken our animals with us,” he said. A retaining wall had been built by the Pakistani government to protect his area after the last massive flooding in 2010.

Mohammad and his neighbors thought the wall would hold. But it burst suddenly in the middle of the night. In a matter of hours, what was about a foot of rain became a torrent of water. By morning, almost the entire village disappeared, he said.

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“The people in these areas have become accustomed to flooding,” said Pakistani Army Lt. Col. Ejaz Karin, who is overseeing rescue and relief efforts in Dadu district. But Karin said he doesn’t believe the families who are refusing to be rescued understand it could take weeks or months for the waters to drain.

If thousands continue to stay in flooded villages, Karin said it will create “a food emergency” and health crisis, further stretching relief efforts and causing a sudden spike in mortality.

Food distribution to these flooded villages is intermittent and largely organized by private individuals. Sometimes, boats arrive daily. Other times, three days can pass without any deliveries, residents say. The rations families receive consist of flour, rice, tea and sugar.

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Another farmer sheltering on the muddy embankment, Miril Solengi, said he is thankful for the food deliveries, but he is running low on animal feed and cannot afford to buy more.

“If we cannot feed our buffaloes,” he paused. “I don’t know what we will do. Our lives depend on these animals. All we can do is wait for the waters to recede.”

In Solengi’s village, floodwaters are 15 feet high. And at the current rate, they are receding at about two to three inches a day.

“We have already warned them, please leave your homes and go to safety, but they refuse,” Sona Khan Chandio, the deputy commissioner for Khaipur Nathanshah said in an interview.

He said the government has sent health teams to visit the families remaining in the flood zone, but the teams have not been able to reach everyone. “We are doing our best,” he said, adding that those who refuse to be rescued have a responsibility to “take care of themselves.”

Budhari Solangi, 24, who was sitting with a group of other women under a tent made of reeds and tattered cloth, said all the children who have stayed are falling ill. “They have fevers and skin diseases we never saw before,” she said.

She called her 7-year-old son back from the crumbling edge of the mud bank. She lifted his foot to reveal a raw bumpy rash running up his ankle. “I don’t know what it is,” she said.

While some boats deliver food, she said no one has brought medicine to her area. The Pakistani navy has tried to encourage her to leave, but she said she doesn’t want to break up her family and has heard horror stories about the conditions on higher ground.

Families rescued by boat are dropped along a highway miles away from the nearest government camp, she said. And making the trip by foot with small children would be impossible.

“Our only option is to stay,” she said.

‘No one is caring for us’: Pakistanis struggle for survival after floods

At the water’s edge, Pakistani navy officers have set up a staging area to expand rescue operations and survey the damage. Behind them, hundreds of families who had chosen to flee their villages were packed along the highway. Many were still wet from the journey. Others had been there for more than a week, living in shelters they assembled themselves.

Under a tent made of branches, scarves and woven reeds, a group of women held up small bags of cooked rice and begged passersby for assistance.

“This is all they gave us!” Naveeda Naich yelled across the road, gesturing to the security forces just a few yards away. “Nothing else, not even milk for our small children.”

When a food ration truck pulled up, the women told their children to run to it.

“We send our sons and daughters to collect the food because the authorities are less harsh with them,” Gulam Zohra said. Her husband once tried to bring food back for the family, but he was badly beaten by security forces when he tried to push through the crowd, she said.

The aid truck was quickly surrounded by people desperate for food, and police with batons tried to disperse the crowd.

“Look at how they treat us,” Zohra said, watching the scene and starting to cry.

Naich hurled insults at a Pakistani police truck driving by. “You’re dogs! All of you, dogs! I spit at you!” she screamed.

Zohra said she had thought she was keeping her family safe by leaving her possessions behind and fleeing the floods, but now she’s horrified by the conditions they are living in.

“They don’t respect us,” she said of the authorities. “They just treat us with brutality.”

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