Sadef A. Kully who travelled to Thatta earlier wrote about her various experiences with rescue teams and locals in the area. Here is an excerpt from when she accompanied a team on a rescue mission.
In a small district in Thatta, the water has stretched out for miles like a sea but rooftops of homes and the top of the trees are reminders that there was a world underneath where people once walked and lived their simple lives.
Thatta remains amongst the worst hit districts because of its proximity to the Arabian Sea. More than half of the population has been affected and over 80 per cent of the crops have been destroyed
Earlier, I had met with Major Zafar from the Coast Guard and was given the chance to join him on a rescue mission after an initial meeting with an advisor to the Chief Minister.
Across Sindh alone, more than seven million people have been affected by the flood and the cost of the damages is currently Rs 438 billion, according to Qaisar Bangali, the advisor of development and planning to Sindh.
We drove to the embankment to join the Coast Guard crew made up of two guards and a boat captain along with two local men.
I zipped up the orange life vest and took off my flip flops – put one foot in the mud and the other in the boat and staggered onto the rescue boat. I took along the basics; my notebook, a camera, a pen and mobile phone.
The current carried us about six to seven kilometers from the mainland in an hour and 15 minutes, which gave everyone a chance for introductions; one local man was the landowner to the farmers and the other local man, Mamu, was the brother to one of the farmers that needed to be rescued.
The Major explained that two farmers had been left behind and their families had protested until the landowner decided that it was best for him to save them.
The Coast Guard found out about the farmers from the landowner who was being held responsible by the farmer’s families if anything happened to them. The landowner could face negligent homicide charges, if the farmers were not found alive, explained the Major. The landowner, who refused to give his name, grew major crops such as sugar cane and rice, which would take a few years to grow and produce. He had lost millions and millions of rupees due to the flood, he claimed. Traveling on the flood river was peaceful, ironic for something that has caused so much destruction. One could get lost in the vastness of the space, small whirlpools had developed, small snakes swam past us as if the water had always been there for them, and distressed ants piled on top of each other creating a black ball – some piles the size of a basketball. The water stretched out for miles like the sea but rooftops of homes and the top trees were reminders that there was a world underneath where people once walked and lived their simple lives. We reached our destination and it looked similar to a marsh land. The Major turned on the loudspeaker’s siren and waited for a response. Nothing. He repeated himself, still nothing. He decided to show Mamu how to use the portable loud speaker and asked him to climb to the top of the roof of a half-inundated hut and call out their names. Mamu took off his periwinkle shalwar and climbed the side of the hut like a 12-year-old, quick and with ease. He took the speaker and started yelling his brother’s name, “Laaakkkkhhooooo, Laaaaakkhhhooo, Laaakkkhhoooooooo.” He waited to hear something. No response. He repeated himself at least three more times. Still nothing. Just when the Coast Guard decided maybe we should risk getting bitten by snakes and going through the trees with paddles, there was a whisper – which gradually became louder. Mamu yelled to the boat that he could see them but there was no way to get to them – they would have to make it out on their own.
So we waited for them to arrive to the boat. We waited for almost 45 minutes, and Jhangi appeared from the treetops…Lakkho was no where in site. Upon climbing the boat, Lakkho apologized to the landowner for leaving behind the land. Sheepishly, the landowner told Lakkho that his life was more important than other things.
Jhangi explained that Lakkho was worried about the land and did not know how to swim well so he decided to stay behind.
The Major was upset and asked if it was possible for him to swim back with Mamu and get Lakkho since they could not reach themselves. He agreed and after a few minutes of rest, he headed with Mamu and the lifesaver tube to fetch Lakkho.
After waiting an additional 45 minutes, Mamu, Lakkho, and Jhangi finally could be heard and were seen wading slowly against the string current of the water.
While watching them I noticed something odd – Lakkho and Jhangi’s heads were abnormally large. As they got closer I realized that they had packed a few belongings inside a plastic bag and wrapped their turban around it to keep it from getting wet. It was clever and part of a survival instinct that I came to understand on the return trip of the rescue mission.
They climbed on the boat, shivering, and started speaking directly to their landowner – they talked about the depth of the crop’s destruction and what they witnessed in the past few days.
I asked if I could ask them a few questions, and thankfully they understood enough of my broken Urdu to give a reply. Lakkho and Jhangi stayed for a land that they created and crops they grew with their own bare hands, they had enough ration to survive for a few more days, and they managed while stranded.
I asked if they were scared at any point – and they both lightly laughed and smiled at my ignorance.
As we continued out into the water, the current became stronger and the colors of the sky started to change. I watched Lakkho and Jhangi carefully as they became recluse from the rest of the chatter on the boat.
They were quiet, staring onto the flood river, looking for something they recognized -maybe a rooftop of a home they knew or a tree, which they had stood under for shade, but there was nothing except water.
Suddenly we came to a stop. The boat captain explained we had run out of petrol and anchored the boat while a rescue boat with some fuel was called.
While waiting Major Zafar told the landowner that we should celebrate now that Lakkho and Jhangi had been rescued, and the landowner agreed. The Major requested that all 500 people from the bund homes, the coast guards involved in the rescue, myself, and doctors were to have dinner courtesy of the landowner. He agreed awkwardly, and then asked me what I would like to eat – I replied with the first thing that came to my mind, “Sindi Biryani.” Everyone laughed.
As I was discussing the menu with the landowner, there was a growing worry in the pit of the boat captain’s stomach that the Major shared – the current of the water was pulling the anchor and our boat towards the Arabian Sea.
The coast guard called in to find the out the location of the rescue fuel boat for our rescue boat – it was close. The boat captain started the boat again, and gave it his all to push the boat closer towards our rescue boat, which was now in sight. Once the boat was close enough, it was tied to our boat and the petrol was poured in so we could start our journey again. Mamu moved to the other boat to even out the weight.
There were a few things that had made our return more difficult; it was becoming dark, some people were fasting, we had more weight to carry with the additional rescue boat to carry, and the current of the water, with whirlpools and filled with inundated homes, had become stronger.
When it became time to break fast, which included our rescued farmers, the rescue petrol boat had brought a cantaloupe and took a Swiss knife to it. They sliced it in half and threw the other half onto our boat. The cantaloupe revived some energy and brought everyone’s attention, including my own, to how quickly darkness had fallen.
The boat captain could not see anything but knew which direction he had to head in and used the moonlight as his guide. We dodged whirlpools, trees, snakes, and skimmed rooftops in the dark. He followed the directions of his crew member who signaled him to travel left or right.
We could see lights from the mainland now and in any other condition we could have reached in a matter of 20 minutes but this short trip took us an over an hour. The return trip took us a total of four hours and 25 minutes. The rescue boat had left at 3pm in the afternoon and arrived back at almost 10pm.
As we got closer, the Coast Guard on the main land sent signals using their vehicle headlights. They could not see us and we didn’t know what to respond with because the radio was not picking up a radio signal. We would have been further delayed had not it been for good, old Lakkho who quickly reached into his packed turban and pulled out a flashlight.
The Coast Guard used Lakkho’s flashlight to signal back to the mainland of our location in the water. We weaved in and out of the water against the current and finally arrived with locals, the Coast Guard, and large, hot pots of Sindi Biryani to greet us.
It had been a long day.
Sadef A. Kully is a reporter for Dawn.com
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