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

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The War and the Flood
At Rawalpindi's heavily fortified military headquarters, all attention is focused on the 72,000 troops engaged in the war on flood damage — and for the war against Taliban militancy, that is a problem. Units defending territory that had been wrenched back from militants in the Swat Valley are now needed elsewhere. Action against the Taliban hasn't entirely stopped — the fighting continues in the tribal areas of Khyber, Bajaur and especially Orakzai, where many militants fled after last year's offensive in South Waziristan and from where they threaten the city of Peshawar. But offensives have been put on hold. "In the areas where one had a plan for an offensive position, one is being forced to take a defensive position," sighs a senior military official, who spoke to TIME under condition of anonymity. The prospect of a push into North Waziristan, long urged by Washington, is not an option for the foreseeable future.

With the army and the state overstretched, the militants are gaining new ground. Already, there is a resigned acceptance of their role in flood relief. Militant groups have set up hundreds of tents and distributed food and medication. "[Given] the kind of catastrophe that you see, you have to work with the devil," the military official says. "One would like to offer him some space to help us." Banned terror outfits like the Jamaat-ud-Dawah — blamed for the November 2008 Mumbai massacre — have re-emerged under new names and with an unsettling confidence. Nawa-i-Waqt, a widely circulated Urdu daily, carried an advertisement from the group on Aug. 4 soliciting funds for its flood-relief work.

Some of the areas worst hit by floods — the northwest and southern Punjab — look certain to provide fresh Taliban recruits, since poverty has long been Pakistani fanaticism's most potent fuel. "If, when the people go back, the state fails to provide basic means of survival, then they could be lured by the militants," the military official says. The Taliban's claim that the floods were divine punishment for Pakistan's failure to adhere to the strict tenets of Shari'a, or Islamic law, already has considerable purchase among deeply religious sections of society.

In the meantime, extremists are taking terrifying advantage of a nation's distraction. On Sept. 1, a triple suicide bombing targeting Shi'ite Muslims ripped through the city of Lahore, killing 35, injuring more than 200 and sparking violent protests against a police force seen as ineffective and unprepared. On Sept. 3, at least 59 Shi'ites were killed when a bomber attacked a procession in the southwestern city of Quetta. Four days later, a bomb placed in a police compound in the northwest killed 16, mostly women and children, and wounded at least 50. "The worst aspect of the floods is the further erosion of the state, and the vacuum is being filled by the extremists," says Iqbal Haider, a human-rights campaigner and former Law Minister.

A Widening Toll
As bombs rock the country, fears are also building of the social unrest that may be triggered by an economic meltdown. The country's largest city and commercial hub, Karachi, is already on a knife-edge. Plagued by Pakistan's highest levels of sectarian killings, this heaving metropolis of 18 million fitfully erupts into spasms of violence as rival ethnic and political groups engage in open gun battles. The city comes to a juddering halt for days. "It affects me badly," says Zubair Gilani, who runs a factory that designs and produces fashionable clothes for export to Italy.

Having hit the supply of cotton, the floods will now only add to the woes of garment businesses like Gilani's and thereby undermine one of Pakistan's chief exports. Even more seriously, in the rural areas of Sindh province beyond Karachi, the loss of rice and possibly wheat crops over the coming months will hurt the agricultural sector and has sparked fears of food shortages. Floodwaters have destroyed 8.9 million acres (3.6 million hectares) of agricultural land and killed 7.2 million farm animals, according to the government's figures. "There will be no income at least until March," says Hamir Soomro, a landowner from the town of Shikarpur, where his family's 1,200 acres (490 hectares) of rice have been submerged and his wheat seed for the winter washed away.

Those who depended on the land have had to flee. In the historic town of Thatta, the road from Karachi is lined with families sitting helplessly in the open air. Others are crowded in the Makli necropolis, a 14th century graveyard consecrated to the region's Sufi saints, with some leaning on tombstones for support. Many Sindhis — perhaps as many as 200,000 — have made for the dubious shelter of Karachi's slums and tent cities, adding to a volatile ethnic mix of Urdu speakers and Pashtuns. "The city can't cope with this many people," says a Sindh provincial government official who did not wish to be named. "There will be tensions. The crime rate will rise. And how long will the government be able to feed these people?" The situation is not much better in the countryside, where already rampant banditry looks set to increase along with land disputes. "Farmers are arming themselves in advance," says Soomro.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has warned his Cabinet of the "serious social implications" that economic misery could trigger. By some estimates, he said, the damage inflicted to the economy could be as high as $43 billion — a quarter of the country's GDP. Some economists dispute the figure as being too pessimistic, but that doesn't alter Pakistan's fundamental desperation. The country has received $3 billion in loans from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank for relief and reconstruction, swelling its already $55.5 billion external debt. It is also dependent on an $11.3 billion support package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), whose conditions Pakistan was struggling to meet before the floods. After the disaster, growth is set to slow by as much as 2%, inflation to rise and the budget deficit to grow — all trending against IMF stipulations.

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