Posts Tagged ‘ Indus River Valley ’

Flood Relief: A US Helicopter Pilot’s Tale

By John Bockmann for The Express Tribune

I am an American helicopter pilot in Pakistan.  My colleagues and I came because Pakistan and its people are enduring the aftermath of a devastating flood.  We were ordered to be here, and we miss our homes, but most of us are glad to help because we believe it’s the right thing to do.

I did not know much about Pakistan before I arrived here.  I knew of the food.  I knew of monsoons and Mohenjo Daro, Karachi and the Khyber Pass, but I had no concept of what Pakistan looked, felt, or sounded like. I even thought many Pakistanis would want us to leave.

I had no idea what the people would be like in person.  I wondered if they would resemble the images I’d seen on TV – would they protest our presence in the streets?  Would they tolerate us?  Or would they simply ignore us and go about their business?

After a few weeks of packing and planning, we were ready to deploy.  Full of excitement and some anxiety, I kissed my wife, took one last picture and was gone. We flew on a cargo jet from Alaska to Islamabad and the flight took so long I hardly knew whether it was day or night when we finally arrived.  Shouldering my gear, I headed to the terminal, weaving among Pakistani military and civilians on the tarmac.  A US Marine captain guided my group inside where we filled out information cards and relaxed in the cool quietness, surveying our area; smooth stone floors, low-slung furniture, and ceiling fans spinning high above.  The captain was talking to a Pakistani man who had been helping us.  Before we left, the man shook my hand and looked me in the eyes. “Thank you for coming to my poor country,” he said quietly.

I wanted to convey the depth of my feelings toward him and his homeland, but all I said was, “You would probably do the same for us” as I walked away.

That was my first interaction with a Pakistani here.

The days since arriving have passed quickly.  Every day we take rice, flour, blankets, housing materials, cooking oil – anything – up and down the Swat and Indus River Valleys.  We also bring sick, injured, and displaced people to hospitals and hometowns.

My first mission took us up the Indus river valley, and I embarrassed myself by constantly exclaiming its beauty.  Below me was the Karakorum Highway – the old Silk Road into China – and the valley itself, with terraced farmland overshadowed by majestic, snow-capped mountains.

Along with the beauty, though, I see reminders of the flood, bridges that are broken or missing and roads and fields that have been washed away.  I am beginning to see widespread reconstruction now as well and feel hope for the people in these villages.  They will soon have another way to get help.

I realize that some who read this will question our intentions and some may even wish us ill.  I certainly did not imagine that cheering throngs would greet us at each village though – we are always welcomed.  I did not expect our goodwill to be taken at face value by all of Pakistan, but we have received immense support.

I have learned in my time here that Pakistani people are truly gracious.  Strangers have invited me for chai and conversation.  Almost anyone will shake my hand and ask my name, inquire about my health and how I am getting along.  Instead of a handshake at our first meeting, I have sometimes been embraced.  “Strangers shake hands,” my new friend Mahmood explained, “but brothers hug each other.”

This warms my heart.  My mission, our mission, is straightforward, noble, and good.  I am deeply grateful to those who support us here, for we need all the help we can get in order to help those in need.   I am honored to do this work. I feel at home here beyond anything I could have expected.

Ah, home!  I miss my home, my wife and family; each day I wonder when I will see them again. But we have a humanitarian mission to accomplish.  Since I must be away, I’m glad that I am here, doing work that’s needed and good.

When I do return home, I will bring with me hundreds of pictures, dozens of journal entries, six duffel bags, and several recipes for local dishes that I have enjoyed, but I will also bring innumerable memories that I will treasure for life — memories of Pakistan and its people.  They have surprised me with friendship.  I hope that through our work of compassion we may surprise them with friendship as well.

U.N. Appeals for Pakistan Aid as Rains Threaten More Flooding

By Saeed Shah for The McClatchy Newspapers

The United Nations appealed Wednesday for $459 million in emergency aid for Pakistan as fresh monsoon rains raised fears that new flooding could drive more people from their homes, deepening the humanitarian catastrophe.

Storms lashed the mountainous northwest, close to the border with Afghanistan, and the northeastern Gilgit region, swelling rivers that empty into the central Indus River before it reaches the city of Sukkur in southern Sindh province, which already is full of people displaced from surrounding areas.

More flooding would prevent vital repairs to Indus River embankments and dikes that protect farmland, allowing water to spread even further when the fresh flows reach Sukkur sometime next week, officials warned.

“Once this peak passes, another flood is being formed in the mountains and then a third,” Sindh’s irrigation minister, Saifullah Dharejo, said in an interview. “If we cannot plug the breaches (in the embankments), the water will keep expanding out.”

“This is a grave situation,” he said.

Sindh is now the focus of the worst floods in Pakistan’s history. They reached the province after washing down the Indus River Valley, powered by unusually fierce monsoon rains that began in northern areas of the country some three weeks ago.

The deluge has left a trail of devastation, destroying roads, bridges and other infrastructure and overwhelming the government’s ability to cope. It’s affected some 14 million people, of whom an estimated 1,600 have been killed and about 2 million left homeless.

The overwhelmingly Muslim country of 170 million, a key U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism, already had been struggling to cope with an economic crisis and Islamic militants allied with al-Qaida when the disaster hit.

The United Nations appealed Wednesday for emergency aid, warning that even those who had been saved from drowning were threatened with sickness and hunger.

“If we don’t act fast enough, many more people could die,” John Holmes, the U.N. humanitarian aid chief, said in New York. He called the disaster “one of the most challenging that any country has faced in recent years.”

In Sukkur, the head of Sindh’s provincial government, Qaim Ali Shah, dismissed the amount of international aid pledged so far as “peanuts.”

The U.S. will be beefing up its assistance to the relief effort with 19 helicopters from the U.S.S. Peleliu, an amphibious assault vessel that is deploying off the Pakistani port city of Karachi, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced Wednesday in Tampa, Fla. The helicopters will be used to distribute food aid and ferry displaced people.

The ship’s aircraft will replace six U.S. military helicopters that were diverted from missions in Afghanistan.

At the Sukkur Barrage, 1.13 million cubic feet of water per second was rushing through the 66 gates of the mile-wide flood-control barrier, which the former British colonial government built on the Indus River in 1932.

Experts think that the flooding at Sukkur probably will ebb Thursday, but with more rain falling in the north, the water will remain high and the next onslaught of flooding could push it even higher, they said.

“Rainfall (in the north) takes about a week to reach Sukkur,” said Muzammil Qureshi, a retired engineer formerly in charge of irrigation for Sindh. “All five rivers converge before Sukkur.”

The onslaught has burst dike banks, drowning hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland in Sindh alone.

Only from the air do the scale of the disaster and the remoteness of the affected villages become apparent.

A McClatchy Newspapers reporter toured the region around Sukkur on a Pakistani army helicopter and saw mile after mile of water, swamp-like in some places, like the open sea in others. Thatched roofs and the tops of trees rose above the water. The outlines of abandoned villages were just visible beneath the surface.

The helicopter pilots had been diverted from battling Taliban militants in the Waziristan region bordering Afghanistan. Around 60,000 Pakistani troops are participating in rescue efforts, raising concerns about the country’s anti-terrorism campaign.

When the helicopter swooped low, it became apparent that there were people struggling to survive in the watery landscape, marooned in dozens of villages on slightly raised ground. Women, men and children could be seen in waist-high water, their buffaloes wallowing in groups.

Hundreds of people had taken refuge on raised embankments, built to hold irrigation channels or dirt roads, but they were stranded without food or shelter from the ferocious sun. Goats, donkeys and trunks of possessions kept them company.

While the military continues to rescue people, many others are refusing to leave their villages, hoping for the water to recede. However, the fresh onslaught that’s on its way from the north could make survival all but impossible.

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