freelance journalist currently based in Karachi, Pakistan. Her work has appeared in The National, Columbia Journalism Review, Global Post, and Current TV.
It’s been a month since torrential rains triggered the worst floods in Pakistan’s recent history. Nearly 20 million people are homeless or hungry, with one million people displaced in the past week alone. The official death toll is at 1,760 but is expected to rise as survivors are threatened by diseases. Madiha Tahir, a freelance journalist in Pakistan, files a report from the Razzaqabad relief camp in Karachi. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: It’s been a month since torrential rains triggered the worst floods in Pakistan’s recent history. Nearly 20 million people are homeless or hungry, with one million people displaced in the past week alone. The official death toll is at 1,760 but is expected to rise as survivors are threatened by diseases. Thousands remain trapped by floodwaters in the hardest-hit southern province of Sindh, while there are reports of others going without food or water for days. In southern Pakistan, hundreds of hungry families from a relief camp in the city of Thatta blocked a highway for three hours Wednesday, demanding the government provide more food and shelter. The United Nations says relief and humanitarian efforts need to take place on an unprecedented scale, given the vast number of people affected.
Well, freelance journalist Madiha Tahir filed this report for Democracy Now! from the Razzaqabad relief camp in Karachi, Pakistan.
MADIHA TAHIR: This is a common sight at this refugee camp on the outskirts of Pakistan’s teeming port city Karachi. Almost 8,000 people live at this camp alone, all displaced by the heavy flooding that has put a quarter of Pakistan underwater. Many of them fled their villages and homes with little more than the clothes they were wearing. When private donors drive through this camp dispatching clothes, money or food, the refugees mob their cars. Sometimes the competition can turn violent.
CAMP RESIDENT: [translated] There was a van that came here three or four days ago into the camp. They smashed its window.
MADIHA TAHIR: Razzaqabad camp is one of twenty-eight camps that have been set up around Karachi to handle the tide of incoming refugees. By rough estimates, there are already 4.5 million internally displaced people, or IDPs, from the flooding in Pakistan. Many of the refugees are complaining of government mismanagement. Abdul Ghani has been at this camp for twelve days with his wife and children. He shows me what he received to wear from the camp organizers. It’s a short skirt.
ABDUL GHANI: [translated] I got these from the camp administrators, from the people in charge. They keep all the good stuff, while this is my fate.
MADIHA TAHIR: His neighbor across from him has been more lucky. His name is Gul Hasan.
GUL HASAN: [translated] Private donors directly give us blankets and even new clothes. The camp administrators are keeping all the stuff they’ve been given to distribute. All we are saying is that those things are for us. We should get them.
MADIHA TAHIR: Complaints of inefficiency and corruption are not limited to the IDPs. International donors have also been reluctant to donate to the Pakistani government for the same reason. Adding to that image is the federal government itself. It’s been repeatedly caught setting up fake medical and relief camps for photo ops. But the situation on the ground with the local government, which is most directly addressing the IDP crisis, is more complicated. Syeda Shahla Raza, who is an elected local official and deputy speaker of the Sindh provincial assembly, explains.
SYEDA SHAHLA RAZA: [translated] This is a natural disaster. It exceeded all our expectations. So we won’t be able to provide relief to everyone.
MADIHA TAHIR: I met Minister Raza at her home in Karachi, where volunteers were busy working in her living room, organizing donations brought by private donors. All the clothes and many other items for the IDPs are provided by private donors. A wealthy financier has taken charge of the meals at the Razzaqabad camp. The government appears to have limited itself to providing tents, water tankers and health facilities. But Minister Raza says her team has been working hard to register the IDPs, organize medical teams, and even to start a school. She dismisses charges of corruption and says the media is exaggerating the government’s inefficiency.
SYEDA SHAHLA RAZA: [translated] Yes, we must be making some mistakes along the way. We could improve our system. But our intentions are good. Yes, it looks good on camera when the media comes and throws donation packages at IDPs, and that creates chaos and looting and someone gets injured, and then the media gets to say, "Look at the conditions in the camps." I’m sure it does wonders for the media’s ratings.
MADIHA TAHIR: In fact, a television channel was shooting when I went to the camp. They were filming camp residents running to grab food packages that the production team itself was throwing at them. Dr. Syed Jaffer Ahmed is director of the Pakistan Study Center at Karachi University. He says that the Pakistani state hasn’t entirely collapsed. But he also says it doesn’t have the capacity to deal with the floods, because it has been weakened by decades of bad policies, including those coming from Washington.
DR. SYED JAFFER AHMED: Pakistan’s democracy has been weakened due to two or three major reasons, and I would say that the role of United States is one major factor, because of the four military rules in Pakistan, three were directly influenced by United States. All our military rule in Pakistan accounts for some thirty-three years out of sixty-three years of Pakistan’s history, and these military rules was sort of encouraged and backed by the United States, and with the result that we did not have political process in this country.
MADIHA TAHIR: The US has agreed to $200 million of flood aid relief to help the 20 million Pakistanis affected by the floods. By comparison, it will spend close to $2 billion this year in military aid on Pakistan. That’s over $150 million per month.
DR. SYED JAFFER AHMED: It is in the forefront of the donors so far. And on the other hand, in North Waziristan and South Waziristan, we hear about drone attacks.
MADIHA TAHIR: Even as Pakistan struggled to cope with the floods, US drones killed thirteen people on August 14th, Pakistan’s independence day. Such priorities have led Washington to prefer dealing with unelected actors like Pakistan’s army, leaving the elected civilian government to play second fiddle. With the devastation of the floods, Dr. Jaffer says, it’s now more important than ever that Washington work with Pakistan’s government in providing flood relief.
DR. SYED JAFFER AHMED: I think that for a country like United States — do you want to strengthen democracy in Pakistan or not? A flood specific act can be very helpful, that we are going to give this much to Pakistan for its reconstruction and rehabilitation of the people, provided such conditions are met.
MADIHA TAHIR: With or without Washington, Pakistan’s government has a lengthy task ahead.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Madiha Tahir, reporting from Pakistan for Democracy Now!