A nation adrift

A nation adrift

The National, 19 September 2010

The floods that continue to submerge swathes of Pakistan have marooned hundreds of thousands of people on small islands of high ground. Gethin Chamberlain accompanies a rescue mission in Sindh province.

THERE is a small boy, standing up to his waist in the flood water, staring at the boats that have pulled up to the burial ground in the village of Bago Daro.

I’m not sure at first what draws my eye to him. There are dozens of other people clustered on the shore and in the shallows, but there is something about him that seems to pull the eye back again and again.

I look at him through a longer lens, tight in on his face. He looks straight back. It is the lack of emotion on his face, I realise, that is drawing me in. The others around him are smiling or grimacing; there is hope in their eyes, or despair.

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After five days stranded on this tiny scrap of land amid an apparently endless sea that appeared overnight where once their village and their fields stood, the outside world has finally found them.

Two boats have arrived from the city of Shahdadkot to rescue them. Now there is a chance of salvation. But only for some of those hundred of so people who have taken refuge on the high ground of the graveyard. The boats can hold no more than 20 people each.

The boy in the water will not be among the lucky ones. I can see that straight away. It is the families with a strong man with them who are climbing onto the boats. There is no sign of the boy’s family. We’re going to leave him behind.

I look away. The boats are nearly full already. A mother passes up her daughter to another relative, then splashes back towards the shore. She stops, turns round, plunges back in, apparently oblivious to the water soaking through her salwar kameez. I trail a hand over the side and brush my fingers through the water. It is unexpectedly warm.

The woman has something in her hand; she is trying to hand it to the girl. It is a piece of pink fabric, maybe a bracelet or a hair tie. She turns away again for the shore.

There is no more room on the boats. The men pull on cords to start the engines and someone else pushes the boats into the deeper water.

The boy is still standing there. He has not moved. I raise the camera and realise I can’t see clearly. A tear has formed in my eye. I’m surprised at myself and look around me to check if anyone spotted. One of the men on the boat is watching me. I look away and rub my eye, making as if I have some dust in it. I’m embarrassed, but I don’t know why. I look up, and catch a final glimpse of the boy before the movement of the boat takes him out of sight behind the top of a submerged tree.

Now he is gone and the boat cuts smoothly through the water, in between the occasional abandoned brick building and around the submerged bushes.

None of the people who have been rescued have even been on a boat before. They look around them, trying to spot anything familiar. There is water as far as the eye can see on all sides. It came in the night five days earlier. They woke to found it rising inside their houses, and waded to the burial ground. They are not sure how many made it. A woman says her husband and their animals are missing.

Some dogs on a strip of road start barking as the boat approaches. They are running backwards and forwards, yapping furiously. The road has washed away at either end. There is nowhere for the dogs to go. The boat glides past.

There is no drinking water in the boat. Before it reached the village, it dropped off a dozen men who wanted to return to their villages to rescue families and possessions. The men drank all the water. We see them a little later, waving frantically, unable to get off the piece of land on which we dropped them. But there is no room in the boat. They are trapped again.

We reach another road. The water is too shallow for the boat to cross it. Everyone climbs out, wading towards the tarmac strip. The water covers the road but you can see a yellow line painted on its edge. The boats leave to find a way through. One returns five minutes later. There is no sign of the other one, our boat.

We wait. It is very hot, the middle of the day. I gave away the last of my own water hours ago to the mother of a six month old baby. Medicine, she said, pointing at the bottle. I shook my head, told her it was water. Medicine, she repeated, and I understood that for the dehydrated child, this was medicine enough.

But now we have no water, and no boat We are stranded. An hour passes. There is nowhere to sit but in the water. Several of the people have sat down.

I feel despair. I look around at the people who have been rescued and abandoned again. They are very quiet. A young girl has found a water jug and brought it back. She clutches it like a trophy. The flood water pours across the road. It is slightly cloudy, but tempting. Several people scoop it into their mouths. They have been drinking the flood water since they were stranded. I try to think of something else. Finally, the boat reappears. I’m angry, shouting at the boatman. He shrugs but offers no explanation about where he went.

There are no further incidents. We reach the levee holding back the water from the city city which we left more than seven hours ago. The people on the boat scramble on to the shore. They want to know where they should go. Some aid workers tell them there is a place they can sleep, and some water to drink. I leave them, still asking questions.

The streets of Shahdadkot are deserted. It is days since the evacuation of the city was ordered and most of the shops are shuttered.

At the end of a lane opposite a school where dozens of families have camped, I open a door and slip into the cool of a local aid agency’s offices. I flip quickly through the images, selecting and discarding. But there is only one I want to see. I find it. The boy is looking straight at me. I look into his eyes. There is nothing there. What is he thinking? Does he think we are coming back today? How long did he stand there, watching us disappear into the distance? I press the buttons and send the pictures, then close the laptop. I’m tired. I shut my eyes. I can still see the boy, looking at me. I think I’ll see his face for a long time.

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