Many years ago, maybe even in my childhood, when I spent much of my time crossing through the hole in the wall of Jinnah hospital where we lived, into the Bijatta line juggis to Farzand ki dukan, I stopped thinking of people as rich and poor, but as nice people or not, gentle or rough, honest or crooks, interesting or boring. I have come across some of the most generous and refined people in the poorest of localities, and boorish, crude and miserly attitudes in homes that have more than plenty. So I was not a bit surprised when I found such gentleness, patience, strength of character, humour, hospitality amongst the traumatised residents of the Northern Bypass Flood Relief Camp on Eid day.
The floods have not only traumatized those who were in its path, but in another equally intense way all those who have watched the horror unfold on their television screens. Some courageous people went straight into action mode, supplementing the efforts of the Army rescuing people, setting up camps, and getting relief goods and medical help to them. The rest of us felt inadequate in the face of the enormity of the tragedy. But as in all natural or man-made disasters, there is eventually room for all levels of support and assistance.
What follows is an account of a visit on Eid to a relief camp on the Northern Bypass, by students and faculty of the Department of Visual Studies, University of Karachi. Students have been assisting with packing of goods, collecting relief goods and donations, and some have volunteered for building of temporary homes in Thatta and beyond. However, we decided to identify a camp in Karachi that we could develop a long term association with until the residents get back on their feet and return to their homes old or new.
After being overwhelmed by the chaotic conditions of makeshift camps on the highway, we were grateful to be introduced to the Northern Bypass camp. The camp is organized by the Karachi Social Forum under the leadership of Afaq Bhatti, a quiet kind young man, who spends all his waking hours gathering tents, food, clothing, along with his growing group of volunteers. The camp is well organized with about 300 tents contributed by private donors. It is located just after the Toll gate on the left if you are coming from the Super Highway.
The residents are mostly from Jacobabad, Shahdadkot, Shikarpur, and Khairpur: shopkeepers, teachers, masons, living side by side with farmers and labourers in an orderly and dignified fashion in the face of unimaginable losses. In order to not subject either donor or recipient to the unseemly scramble for handouts we see all too often, visitors are requested to give their contributions of food or clothing tent by tent, and those who miss out wait patiently for another opportunity.
After an initial visit, we proposed to bring students to spend Eid with the residents, cheer them up with games, music and mehendi.
A University of Karachi bus loaded with students, teachers and friends of the Department of Visual Studies, another half a dozen cars of those who could not fit in the bus had come to spend Eid afternoon at the camp, armed with cricket bats, kites, toys, mehendi cones, snacks and guitars. I thought: its Eid, its raining, I am sure very few would turn up, parents would protest, but in fact everyone who volunteered and many more turned up at the university in cars, rickshas, and taxis. Some were even finishing off their eid lunch in plates in their cars as they drove up.
When we arrived, we were a bit thrown because it had been raining for two days and the camp was muddy, everyone looked really depressed because all their few belongings were wet, the floor of their camps were a mud slush, some tents had collapsed. A few downcast people said the flood was following them and there seemed to be no escape. It seemed inappropriate to start off the games and entertainment.
Students quickly divided into groups and started walking through the organized lanes. Before long, I saw groups of students re erecting fallen tents, digging piles of earth to raise the floors of flooded tents and building small embankments around them. The men who had just been sitting in despair started helping. Quietly a few female students had begun applying mehendi. Soon the mood started lifting. The rain had stopped. After the first hour, I heard strands of the guitars and all the youngest children had gathered around to hear the singing. One of the female students had brought her flute and accompanied the “band”. Soon the older boys and then the men joined in the audience. Some of the kids were persuaded to dance, nearby a cricket game had begun, and pretty soon everyone was smiling.
The rest were quietly distributing balloons, snacks, toys and some clothes tent by tent. The toys were collected in one day by students of St Joseph’s School, who generously parted with their cherished toys. A small GI pipe with a lever valve was attached to the water supply hose pipe
Many of us were simply visiting families and chatting with them.
The very first person I went to chat with, immediately invited me in to her tiny tent to share a cup of hot tea she had just made. Sadura, wearing a bright blue shalwar kameez and smiling cheerfully, is in her ninth month of pregnancy and looked ready to deliver. She has been spending the nights on the earth without even a chadar. Afaq Bhatti has arranged an ambulance. We gave her a heavy chadar, acutely aware of the inadequacy of this gesture, and with a promise to ourselves to get her a cot for the baby and a bed for her. Two babies were born last week, and one shortly after our visit. I wonder if it was Sadura?
Amir Zadi ( the irony of her name did not escape us) is living in one tent with her husband Yar Mohammed, her mother in law, two daughters and two sons. She is keen to see a doctor and wants shoes for herself and her children. The camp has scorpions and snakes, and there have been scorpion bites reported
Sakina Bibi had lost her son in the sudden flood that overtook them near Shahdadkot. She was nevertheless able to smile and crack jokes and philosophize with Muna who visited her. She had not even recovered the dead body of her son. Married to a retired policeman her eldest son had died, her daughter was in another relief camp in another town and yet tears only came to her eyes once when Muna expressed hope that perhaps he will be found somewhere, and she replied that she would leave this world but he will never be found. “Her second eldest son, asked me if I had seen 2012 the film. Surprised that he had seen it, I said I had, and he said : ‘bas vohi manzar tha.’ with a smile. I said ‘acha vaisa hi tha?’ and he said, ‘ nahi vohi manzar tha.’”.
Initially there was little interaction between the families, but this is slowly changing. Afaq Bhatti said some of the women were gathered together in a tent, crying for the first time.
The camp has the advantage of being secluded, clean and airy. After the rains the surrounding landscape looked green and peaceful. There is a water supply. However, at night it is pitch black with no electricity or street lights. There are bathrooms but the women find it nerve racking to go at night. There are tents but not enough beds. Many sleep on the floor and there is an urgent need for beds and razais before the colder weather sets in. There is good breeze but that also lifts up the flimsy tents and leaves little privacy.
The charitable trust, Sailani delivers food. A taxi driver has offered his taxi for emergencies and transport, taking only the cost of petrol. Many visitors come with gifts of food and clothing, although this is likely to lessen over time. Over the next few months we hope to cooperate with the management to build in house cooking facilities, sturdier shelters, an area for a school, get solar lamps, establish a craft centre for the women, many of who make ralli and embroidery, and encourage the men to grow vegetables for their own use. Hamza Vora and Tobias Ottahal, who have come from Vancouver for a craft development residency at the Department of Visual Studies, intend to focus on the economic rehabilitation of flood victims. A team of SIUT doctors including Dr Aamir Jaffrey and Dr Riffat Zaman plan weekly clinics for medical needs and counselling.
Three young sisters who accompanied us had the following to say : Amna, ( 13) the youngest volunteer: “It was very uplifting to meet all these people who, despite all the problems they were facing, had hope and were very cheerful. It was enlightening to interact with people from rural Pakistan and to discover that they are very much like us. The children, adults and elders were all people who I could relate to in some way or another. It was, for me, an opportunity to unite our nation and erase boundaries that need not exist in the first place.”
Sadia ( 16) said “it helped me realize that its not the people who insist on wasting their lives away on the streets, that need our help but the people who hold our country together and make sure we have food on our table.”
Laila ( 15) said “It was very heartening to see the families enjoying themselves. All the people were honest and polite. It was lovely to see parents interacting with their children and their relatives: it always fills one with a feeling of unity to see that their family life is the same of ours.”
As we left, to the sounds of children trumpeting party blowers from every corner of the camp, we all felt
we had had a great time. We felt more elated and hopeful than we would have imagined. I realized that especially for young people, who mostly hear cynicism and jaded views at this vulnerable time of their lives, it was fulfilling to know they can make a positive change.
The floods should perhaps not simply be seen as a tragedy, but an opportunity. The waters may have swept away homes but it has also revealed the potential to cleanse away social stagnation. Urban Pakistan has come to know rural Pakistan which had become all but invisible in the politics obsessed media and national development policies. Every province has shared in this tragedy. It has awoken a sense of humanity giving a sense of purpose to the many who have been working tirelessly across the country. For once we, the ordinary citizens, feel we have a role to play in our country. Saeed Bhai, who considers himself poor, handed out Rs 500 worth of crisp five rupee notes, eidi collected by his daughters. After the visit, I received an SMS on my phone from the students saying this experience had made their lives meaningful.
I would encourage everyone to go out and assist in whatever way they can, because what was clear on this visit was that no gesture is too small.
Karachi September 2010