Pakistan's Despair: Through Hell and High Water

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Photograph by Massimo Berruti for TIME

Grave predicament Displaced by the floods, many seek shelter at the Makli necropolis in Thatta, Sindh province

Musafir Khan tilts back a dusty prayer cap, shuts his small, sunken eyes and wrings the sweat from his beard. The 55-year-old grandfather says he should be accustomed to the heat by now, but it's difficult to see how he or any of the other 6 million people rendered homeless by Pakistan's floods can get used to the misery in which they find themselves. "The tents are unbearable," he says. He gestures across one of the makeshift camps that sprawl around the northwest garrison town of Nowshera, where temperatures easily reach 38°C and winds fall to an evil, scorching whisper. "It's better outside."

For five weeks, Khan and his relatives have sat there, under the white, overwhelming sun. Near the ragged rope beds on which he and his male relatives are clustered, young children — some of them naked — trudge across the dirt. Some have red-streaked hair, a sign of the protein deficiency that occurs in malnutrition. Small helpings of food arrive at either end of the day, between which everyone is hungry — not only because it's Ramadan, but also because there just isn't enough. The camp's medic reports that many suffer from scabies and diarrhea, but they've at least been spared the cholera that is a constant fear in this flood-ravaged land.

Khan has no idea when he will return to his village. His mud-brick home has been washed away. "When we left our homes, there was water everywhere," he recalls. "It was rising up our legs at the same time as it poured on our heads." His two sons, both builders, fear that they may no longer be able to support the family. "Only Allah knows what will happen to us," Khan says.

When the floodwaters that burst free of the Indus River finally empty into the Arabian Sea, they will leave behind a land mired in the mud of uncertainty. One of the biggest natural calamities in Pakistan's history has overwhelmed an already creaky state. A civilian government has been further weakened after being seen to fail its people. A powerful army may have burnished its reputation by leading the rescue efforts, but it finds itself overstretched. Militants, restrained by military offensives last year, now sense opportunity. A fresh wave of terrorist attacks is sweeping across the country. The economy has been ravaged to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. And with a third of all agricultural crops submerged, there are fears of food shortages and ensuing civil unrest.

Many Pakistanis gloomily acknowledge that things have never been worse. A few live in the hope that the disaster will transform the country, alerting not just themselves but also the global community to Pakistan's parlous state and prompting some sort of redemptive change in national direction. Rather more Pakistanis, however, feel that there is no political leader able to channel those hopes. Indeed, some say that nothing can stop the nation from its grim, gothic slide into anarchy and failure. But there is one thing that everybody agrees on: Pakistan will never be the same. Shockwaves from the Great Flood of 2010 are being felt in politics, counterterrorism, the economy and the soul of a nation.

Postdiluvian Politics
"I don't think anybody will fully recover," President Asif Ali Zardari recently conceded to a group of journalists. He most certainly won't. As the floods hit, his administration came under attack for failing to respond to the needs of the 20 million people affected. Rescue and relief efforts were wretchedly slow and Zardari's absence didn't help. He was, admittedly, on long-scheduled state visits to France and the U.K. to discuss the important business of counterterrorism, and while there was able to raise money for flood victims (even if he did sneak in a quick holiday at his 16th century Norman château). But when Zardari was slipping off to the Elysée Palace or being chauffeured to Chequers, Pakistan's army chief and the country's opposition leaders were pictured on TV, devotedly hastening to flood victims and scoring political capital. Junior partners in Zardari's ruling coalition, seizing on popular anger at the President's failure to lead from the front, are calling for rebellion. Altaf Hussain, the leader of the Karachi-based Muttahida Quami Movement, which is a member of Zardari's coalition, has demanded a "French-style" revolution, urging "patriotic generals" to rid the country of "feudals" and "corrupt politicians."

A widespread willingness, even on the part of the homeless, to recognize that the scale of the disaster was beyond anyone's control will buy Zardari some time. "The whole of Pakistan has become a river, from Swat to Karachi. What can any government do?" asks flood victim Khan in the Nowshera camp, throwing his hands in the air. Keen for democracy to remain in place, the political opposition will also not countenance any sudden, arbitrary attempts to oust Zardari. "My party is terribly disappointed with the performance of the Zardari government," says Nisar Ali Khan of the Pakistan Muslim League and leader of the opposition. "But we feel very strongly that the failures of this government should not be seen as the failures of democracy. This government should only be removed by the democratic process, and at the moment we are mired in so many difficulties you can't think of an election."

When a poll can next be taken, change is likely. (Before the monsoon rains, opinion polls registered Zardari's popularity at 20%; it must now be in single digits.) But the army, of course, may intervene first. To be sure, it isn't likely to gratuitously tarnish its newfound popularity by staging a hasty coup, and it wouldn't want to offend Washington, which has worked to shore up Pakistan's fledgling democracy, unless there were extremely pressing reasons for doing so. The army should also be satisfied with the amount of power that it currently enjoys — "it controls decisionmaking on foreign policy and national security," says Farzana Shaikh, author of Making Sense of Pakistan. And yet a coup cannot be ruled out. "The moments when the army has seized power are generally when the country has been on its knees and it steps in as a savior," Shaikh adds. "There's no reason why we shouldn't expect a repeat performance."

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