Many Pakistanis can’t afford to flee

As the sun set yesterday, a Pakistani family waited for a food handout at a camp for flood victims on the outskirts of Peshawar. As the sun set yesterday, a Pakistani family waited for a food handout at a camp for flood victims on the outskirts of Peshawar. (Tim Wimborne/Reuters)
By Tim Sullivan
Associated Press / August 23, 2010

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HAMDANI LEGARI, Pakistan — The old man stepped carefully through his village, dodging craters as deep as graves where they had been mining soil for embankments to hold back the floodwaters. Already, nearly half this village of tenant farmers had been destroyed. The crops wiped out.

But Mohammed Ayoub and his neighbors were not leaving, not unless all the mud houses collapsed. It was not about pride, or a farmer’s love for his village or the land he sows. It was a straightforward financial equation: They could not afford to lose what little they had left.

If, to an outsider, their belongings might look inconsequential — some goats, a couple buffalo, cheap metal cooking pots and transistor radios — it was everything to them. And with no way to take their possessions with them, they were not going to leave them for the looters.

Across the Pakistan flood zone, thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of people have decided to stay in their homes, often sleeping on rooftops because of the high water. Stranded on tiny islands a few inches above the water line and refusing offers of rescue, they are reflections of Pakistan today: its widespread poverty, the collapse of the traditional bonds between landlords and tenants, and the lack of confidence in authorities’ willingness to protect them.

“The women were scared before we sent them away, and we’re scared now,’’ said Ayoub, a thin, courtly man with a white mustache wearing a dirt-stained shalwar kameez, the baggy shirt and pants ubiquitous across rural Pakistan.

He was one of about 30 men who remained as guardians and to build up the embankments in case of more flooding. About 400 villagers have fled.

“How can we all leave?’’ Ayoub asked. “We have to stay here if we want to protect what we own.’’

Another farmer, a young man, spoke up: “We’re not scared of dying,’’ Ghulam Raza said loudly. “We’re scared of losing everything we have.’’

In reality, death is not much of a worry now in this part of Sindh Province. The worst of the danger passed when the floods swept through more than a week ago, and even then no one here died. Life, though, is desperately miserable: There is little food, no electricity, the well is filled with brown flood water, and there’s nothing to do but dig more holes to shore up the embankments.

While doctors say cases of malaria and gastrointestinal diseases are spiking across the flooded areas, and there have been sporadic cases of cholera, there are enough fishing boats in this part of Sindh to get people to the shoreline if they want.

Pakistan’s troubles began in late July, when annual monsoon rains turned savage, and downpours began pounding the northwest. Within a few days, as much rain fell as the country normally receives in a year. About 1,500 people have died.

But that was only the beginning. The rain that had fallen in the mountainous northwest began flowing southward through the plains, swelling rivers, breaking through embankments, flooding an area the size of Italy, and wreaking havoc across the agricultural heartland.

Millions of people were left homeless. Yesterday, flood levels had stabilized in central Sindh, but were surging further south in the province.

The village is in the flood plains of the Indus, a river that has fed societies in this part of the world for millennia and where villagers are long accustomed to monsoon flooding.

But on the morning of Aug. 14, they awoke to something strange and terrifying. Past floods had risen a few inches a day, and normally stopped long before they devastated the crops. This one rose 6 feet in less than 24 hours, they say, cutting off the village and swamping buildings. top stories on Twitter

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