Muhammad: Behind the scenes with an IRC aid worker (Part ll)
July 8, 2011 by Ned Colt
|IRC staffers heading out to conduct an assessment of needs following last year's devastating Pakistan floods The IRC|
A behind the scenes look at one International Rescue Committee staffer who worked through the worst of last year's record floods in Pakistan. This is the second chapter in a two part blog. Read Part 1 here.
Pakistanis call Swat “the Switzerland of South Asia.” It’s a favorite weekend destination when summer temperatures elsewhere in Pakistan soar above 110 degrees. But last summer, when flash floods surged through the Upper Swat Valley, tourists found themselves in watery misery. The deluge was so sudden and powerful, many of them abandoned cars and buses, and fled downhill on foot.
IRC staffer Muhammad* and four colleagues, who had been aiding displaced families in the region were in a position to help. They rented four-wheel drive vehicles to help some of those pouring downhill make their way to safety. When the province's roads were washed out, they created new routes of their own, eventually ferrying almost 500 men, women and children to waiting buses that could take them home.
But Muhammad remained anxious about those left behind. “The fields were gone, the markets and roads were washed away,” he explains. “We were worried that, if it was this bad where we were, it might be much worse further upstream.” Muhammad intended to find out.
He and his colleagues loaded backpacks with all the emergency rations of milk, biscuits and canned fruit from the IRC office. Then they stopped at a market and spent their own money for still more food. Fully loaded with about 75 pounds of supplies each, the five IRC workers began the arduous trek upstream through the underbrush, alongside streambeds that were now raging torrents.
"As we walked uphill, villagers were pouring down,” says Muhammad. “Many were crying, some were injured. We did what we could.” They handed out food to those in need, quickly emptying their backpacks. Still they trudged on through fields stripped of crops until they came upon apple trees drooping with ripe fruit. Orchard owners realized the harvest would rot on the trees; so they helped the rescuers refill their backpacks.
A Member of the Family
After a seven-hour slog up mucky hillsides, the IRC team finally arrived at the first of the villages they would visit. Muhammad grimaces as he remembers what they saw. “The first town we got to? Half the market had been washed away. All that was left of the local hospital was a single room. Even a four-story hotel had disappeared!” Homes built of stone, cinder block and wood had been smashed and washed away. But amid the devastation, there was reason for encouragement. No one had been killed; the military had alerted village leaders just in time.
The reaction to the small team’s arrival? “They were shocked when they saw us, because everyone else had been leaving,” says Muhammad. “We felt like a family being welcomed home! Someone went up to a mosque’s minaret and used a bullhorn to announce the IRC had come back! We only had apples to give them, but we certainly helped their morale!”
With power lines down, Muhammad and his colleagues kept their camera-phones charged with batteries from abandoned cars. They snapped photographs to demonstrate the devastation and to illustrate what was needed. Soon more help was on the way,
A Long Process
Over the coming months, Muhammed and his colleagues would return to these villages time and again. By late fall, the IRC had spearheaded the reconstruction of more than 30 kilometers of roads and paths, hiring some 1,400 villagers in a cash-for-work effort intended to help the jobless as well as jumpstart the local economy. As winter approached, the IRC provided cold weather kits to 1,800 families, providing them with comforters, blankets, pillows, candles and tarpaulins as temperatures dropped below zero.
This summer, ahead of the monsoon season, the IRC has switched into its “preparedness” mode. Muhammad has helped set up a pilot program to teach first aid to villagers. The IRC is also bringing in agriculture experts to discuss effective ways of protecting crops from floodwaters.
“We feel like family now,” Muhammad says with a grin. “We see the benefits of the projects on the faces of the villagers. We are always welcome here now, because they’ve seen our work. That’s the beauty of the IRC.”
*Due to IRC security protocols, Muhammad’s name has been changed.