‘This is not our country’: At shelters in Karachi, flood victims struggle to stay afloat

Amid rising diseases and lack of resources, there is little hope for flood affectees to cling on to.
Published September 29, 2022

At the far end of a 16 x 20 foot room in the Khatoon-e-Pakistan Government Girls College, Karachi — now a relief camp for families affected by the catastrophic floods — Shabira Khatoon, 35, sits quietly amid the chaos, staring outside a window that looks onto an abandoned plot turned garbage dump. Her 13-year-old daughter, Samina, who is desperately trying to comfort a crying infant in her arms but failing, calls out to her several times but Shabira doesn’t bat an eyelid.

“She recently lost her newborn child,” says Samina, before jolting her mother back to reality.

Shabira looks like most women at the relief camp — parched lips, frail bodies, and pale faces. All of them have been displaced, having lost their life savings, houses, fields, and even children to the torrential rains that wreaked havoc across the country.

The main entrance of the Khatoon-e-Pakistan Government College which is now a flood-relief camp.
The main entrance of the Khatoon-e-Pakistan Government College which is now a flood-relief camp.

According to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), more than 33 million people across Pakistan have been rendered homeless due to what the World Health Organisation (WHO) has termed the “monster monsoon”. Sindh ranks first among the worst-affected provinces.

Hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the floods are living in the open and officials say flood waters, spread over hundreds of kilometres, may take two to six months to recede.

At the college in Karachi, flood-affected families from Larkana, Rato Dero, and Sukkur live in makeshift rooms.

When you enter the premises of the relief camp, even before the heart-wrenching visuals and wailing children appear, it is the sharp stench that hits you, momentarily rendering you breathless. As you walk in, you realise that the stagnant water at the entrance — which, according to residents flows out of the washrooms — is the reason for the odour.

For a facility that houses 98 families, the college looks deserted at first sight. However, as you walk in, you see young girls and boys gazing out of their rooms, fighting with their mothers for freedom. Those who manage to win the argument, join their friends on an old bench under a tree, where they giggle and play games, almost oblivious to their dire circumstances.

A group of children sit on a worn off table under a tree.
A group of children sit on a worn off table under a tree.

‘80pc children sick with malaria’

Further ahead, the rooms, each one shared by three families, are crowded with men, women, and children, most of them lying under blankets despite the scorching sun.

“They have high fevers and have been diagnosed with either dengue or malaria,” Samina tells Dawn.com. “But most of them are children. Nearly 80 per cent of children here are sick with malaria and diarrhoea.”

The recent rains have spurred diseases like malaria, dengue fever, skin and eye infections, and acute diarrhoea among people. The WHO has said the surge has the potential for a “second disaster”.

Since July 1, over 3.2 million patients have been treated at medical camps in Sindh, according to the provincial health department.

Samina, who is the only daughter of Shabira Khatoon, looks just as weak as the other children at the camp in Karachi. But she is the loudest among them, and possibly the smartest, leading the way out of despair.

Shabira Khatoon and her daughter Samina sit in a room at a flood relief camp in Karachi.
Shabira Khatoon and her daughter Samina sit in a room at a flood relief camp in Karachi.

“It has been raining in my town for the last three months. I have never seen this amount of downpour ever in my life. Our houses were flooded with 10-feet-high water. We didn’t even have wood to cook food on,” Samina recalls.

She then took a side glance at her mother. “The night before we came to Karachi, my mother was in labour,” said the teenager, who suddenly looking much older than her age.

“It was pouring down heavily and we had rushed to the Larkana Civil Hospital in a hurry. But for 10 hours that day, my mother was lying in the operation theatre […] waiting for a doctor to come.

“When they did arrive, the officials told us they couldn’t do anything because there was no electricity. We waited until 3am […] the next morning my mother gave birth to a still baby girl.”

Just a day after the ordeal, Samina and her family found themselves in Karachi.

“It is fine here. We get food twice a day and some snacks in the middle. But I can’t help but think of what will come next,” the 13-year-old says, as she fixes her dupatta back on her head.

Just like most other children at the camp, Samina never got a chance to go to school. “I sit here the entire day and can’t help but think how my life could have been different if I was educated.

“I could have gone out and looked for a job,” she says as she looks at the walls of the room, which was once a classroom. You can see drawings of animals and posters of the Urdu alphabets hung on the walls. However, the chairs and desks are gone. In their place are mats and trunks.

One of the rooms where the flood-affected families live.
One of the rooms where the flood-affected families live.

“This is all we could manage to bring with us,” Samina says. Suddenly, the engine of a water tanker entering the building roars. Just as abruptly, the somber picture in front of you transforms into disarray as women rush out of the doors towards the backyard of the college where the water tanker stops.

Women, children, and men crowd the vehicle with tubs, buckets, and empty cans in their hands, desperate to get as much water as they can. During the process, arguments and fights break out between women, but never escalate.

Dire sanitary conditions

Once the cans and tubs are filled, children are dragged for showers. At the same time, clothes are being washed and hung on fish wires. Queues outside the bathrooms increase as well, which you will find, are not in the best condition.

Women gather around a water tanker at the relief camp.
Women gather around a water tanker at the relief camp.

“For nearly 1,000 people, we just have four washrooms, of which two are toilets and in dire condition,” says Faqeer Ghaus Bakhsh, from Sindh’s Meharpur area.

You don’t even need to enter the toilet to see what he is talking about, because the smell nearby is nauseating. The toilets are oozing out dirt, while the contaminated water flows out in the open.

Beta, I am an old man. It is so difficult for me to even perform wudhu,” Ghaus says as he pacifies a toddler in his arms. “She is my only grandchild.”

The 70-year-old man’s story is the same. He lost everything in the floods.

“We came here last month. They give us food, water, and medicines […] but for how long can I depend on these people? I need a job, there is no other way out of this mess.”

Ghaus Bakhsh stands with his young granddaughter in his arms.
Ghaus Bakhsh stands with his young granddaughter in his arms.

What Ghaus said was echoed by most men at the relief camp, including Aftab.

“Before the floods, I used to earn Rs1 million a year from my cotton fields, but the rains have destroyed everything,” he said. “There is no point in going back now. What will I do there?”

‘This is not our country’

Aftab arrived in Karachi 20 days ago along with his four-year-old son and wife from the Mad Bangla area in Sukkur, which is nearly 500 kilometres away. “The rain was ruthless to the extent that there was water inching up to our foreheads […] we were stuck on the roof of our house for two days until the provincial teams came to rescue us,” he told Dawn.com.

“They took us out of the area in boats because everywhere we looked, there was just water,” he said, recalling that the two nights he spent under the sky were the worst of his life.

Aftab’s two daughters and mother are still in Sukkur and are living in the tents set up by the government. “I need to send them money […] how long will we stay in these camps? I must do something, right?” he questions rhetorically.

A view of the second floor of the relief camp where other families stay.
A view of the second floor of the relief camp where other families stay.

“For the past three days, I wake up and sneak out of the camp to find work. And every day, I come back empty-handed. Who will give a job to a farmer like me? I don’t even know where to go in the city for work,” he said and pursed his lips.

While Aftab was talking, a young child nestled in his lap started crying. “My son has a neurological problem. Back in the village, we used to take him for weekly checkups, but I can’t do that anymore.”

He added that when people at the camp approach the administration for help, the officials dismissed their concerns. “They tell us to stay indoors and reason that we will get lost. Bhai, we sure are from the village but we aren’t dumb.

“Why don’t they understand that we need jobs?” he stressed.

The makeshift rooms where the affectees live.
The makeshift rooms where the affectees live.

As soon as Aftab finishes talking, a young girl standing in the crowd of people gathered nearby speaks up. “Ye humara watan thori hay (this is not our country),” she says.

“This is not our country. We have been locked up in a room here and aren’t allowed to leave or go anywhere,” the young girl says, before running away with the other children.

‘A grey area’

In the meantime, lunch is served, and just as the announcement is made, all the people at the camp start rushing to complete their chores. It is one of those rare days when Biryani is on the menu and the excitement is palpable.

Ashraf Sheikh, the in-charge at the camp, stands by closely as he is responsible for overseeing health and food-related concerns at the camp.

Just a few moments before lunch is called.
Just a few moments before lunch is called.

He describes the entire debacle of flood victims as a “grey area”. “You can’t blame these people, nor the management here because we are doing everything we can.”

“You won’t believe it, but we are literally looking over the smallest of details here. They are given cholay and naan [lentils and bread] for breakfast […] some days it is paratha. They are given proper meals for both lunch and dinner and there is a medical camp set up here,” he said.

But Ashraf contended that nothing was “ever enough for them”. “There are so many people who come here with donations and every single time, these people hound them. No one ever comes here anymore.

“We tell them to keep the bathrooms clean, but no one ever listens,” he said.

“But then again, to think of it, you can’t really blame them. This is what adversity looks like,” the in-charge added in the next breath.

‘They’re throwing us in the jungle’

Ashraf told Dawn.com that he was not responsible for providing jobs to people. “I can just take care of their accommodation and food. Providing them livelihoods is the government’s job, but they don’t care the least.”

An elderly flood affectee washing clothes.
An elderly flood affectee washing clothes.

Another man, a flood victim, said that the government was now planning on moving all the affectees to a relief camp — a tent city — in Surjani Town.

Jungle main le ja k phenk den gain ye log humain (they will throw us in the jungle) […] they say we will be provided all the facilities there,” Qurban Ali from Mehar said. “But no one has asked us if we want to go there. It is a jungle […] how will we get jobs there? Will we stay there forever?”

Ashraf confirmed Ali’s claim, saying that the government was indeed moving the affectees to the tent city. “They had initially told us that they will take them on Sept 20, but we told them to extend it till Sept 25 because none of the people were ready to go [The date has now been further extended till Oct 1].

“You see, they want a permanent solution to the crisis…”

Before Ashraf could complete his sentence, the cries of an old woman drew everyone’s attention. “They are bastards,” she said — her curses echoing in the relief camp.

Unfulfilled promises

Sakina Ali from Mehrabpur district had arrived at the camp with her grandchildren. All the bread earners of her family were either in the village or had died. “It is all a scam […] the government […] They promised to give us Rs25,000 under the Benazir Income Support Programme but it is all a fraud.”

Earlier, under its Flood Relief Cash Assistance Programme, the government had announced that flood-affected families will receive Rs25,000 via the Benazir Income Support Programme.

Sakina Ali from the Mehrabpur district of Sindh.
Sakina Ali from the Mehrabpur district of Sindh.

A little hysterical, the woman in her mid-50s takes a deep breath and explains that she had visited the Nadra office first thing after arriving in the city.

“They said I can withdraw the money from the bank but when I went there, the money just won’t come out of the machine [ATM],” she says.

Other women surrounding Sakina hum in unison, explaining that the same had happened with them too, as they try to comfort her.

However, soon after Sakina is done narrating the ordeal, the crowd gathered around her disperses, almost bored of her story.

The photo shows what a regular day looks like for the residents of the flood relief camp.
The photo shows what a regular day looks like for the residents of the flood relief camp.

After a while, even Sakina joins them. If you had just seen her, you would never know she was almost in tears a while back.

Nearby, Ghaus starts brushing his silver beard with a small comb as his granddaughter looks at him in awe. A few feet away, Samina whispers something in her mother’s ear, which brings a sparkle to Shabira Khatoon’s hollow eyes.

Ashraf, who is looking at the people in front of him, has a faint smile on his face. “This is what a calamity does to you […] it rips you apart to a point where there is nothing left to lose.”