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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Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, Pakistan's Finance Minister, hasn't conceded defeat yet. "[The floods] could be an opportunity to make tough decisions," he says. "For example, we could push through a sales tax, introduce a flood surcharge on well-to-do people and get some leeway from the IMF and the international community." He speaks of the recovery effort as "a spur of economic activity," boosting construction and allied sectors. In agriculture, he believes there will be gains in the long run, with the water table rising for better-irrigated crops, and the silt left over from the floods making more land more cultivable.

For many Pakistanis, however, that's impossibly far ahead. It's the coming months that fill them with foreboding. This year's Independence Day celebrations, on Aug. 14, were scarcely marked. The usual sharp surge in Ramadan retail sales eluded Islamabad and Karachi's eerily quiet shopping centers. Television and radio stations have attempted to revive spirits by replaying patriotic pop songs that recall brighter days, but it's a forlorn effort. To make matters worse, the Pakistan cricket team, a rare source of national pride, has been embroiled in scandal, with three of its leading players suspended after allegations of match-fixing. "It's deeply disappointing," says former cricket legend Imran Khan. "There's the war on terror, this flood devastation, and all of this has made it just that much more demoralizing."

A Nation Endures
Without even sporting distractions to rely on, postdiluvian Pakistanis are left to simply scrutinize themselves, and the collective examination is painful. The old fictions — that everything terrible befalling the country must be the result of archenemy India or the Taliban or the machinations of the U.S. — no longer hold true. Instead, there is a widespread realization that the devastating ease with which the floodwaters swept away lives and livelihoods has nothing to do with external agents, and everything to do with the failure of successive governments to invest in infrastructure and development. It's as if the waters have receded to reveal decades of neglect by regimes that pursued nuclear and military ambitions instead of new industries, decent roads, civil-aid plans and sturdy bridges.

These days, it's clear to everyone that tens of millions are struggling on the margins, driven there by a government that spends less than 1.5% of GDP on education and health. In the cities' well-heeled neighborhoods, social gatherings have become more solemn affairs. As glasses are drained and ashtrays filled, political and social gossip has been displaced by talk of the floods' misery. "Many of us who comfortably sat in cities were not aware of the poverty in rural areas," says Ayesha Tammy Haq, a Karachi-based columnist and television talk-show host. "Now it's come into our living rooms through the television and it's sitting on the highway," she adds, gesturing at the human tide on one of Karachi's fume-choked thoroughfares. Her prognosis for Pakistan is not happy. "People said this country would change before, but it hasn't," she says, referring to the hope-filled aftermath of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the optimism generated more recently by the so-called lawyers' movement — a campaign that succeeded in reinstating the country's chief justice after his 2007 dismissal by military ruler General Pervez Musharraf. "If you want to harness resentment and anger, you need leadership," she says. "We haven't seen a leader emerge out of the floods."

For Gilani, the clothes exporter, the cataclysmic national crises are occurring far too frequently. The last was the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, in the wake of which his factory was ransacked and burned down as angry mobs tore through the streets of Karachi and large black columns of smoke filled the air. The insurance was only sufficient for recouping half of his assets. "It'll take me at least another year before we recover," says Gilani. But his attitude toward Pakistan's future has irrevocably changed. "I don't want my children to live in this country," he says. "The reason why people don't leave is because they don't have options. If you took a poll of people asking if they'd like to have a green card, only a few madmen would say no."

With most people having no choice but to continue living in Pakistan, the population seems to be drawing tentative hope from two areas. The first is the country's geopolitical significance. Pakistan is simply too important for the U.S. and its allies to give up on. Not only does its collapse imperil the war in Afghanistan, but the destabilization of the world's second largest Muslim nation and the threat of its nuclear stockpile slipping loose are the West's worst nightmare. "The situation is grim beyond belief," says analyst Shaikh, "but [Pakistan is] somehow kept afloat by the international community, just enough to keep it from breaking at the seams."

The second saving grace is the fact that ordinary Pakistanis have not given up on themselves. At the dusty camp in Nowshera, Sher Muhammad speaks of his bleak prospects. "I used to build houses," he says. "The money was good, but I could only get work five or 10 days a month. Now there is no work for me to do. Everything has been washed away." He is angry with the government and what he describes as its indifference to the poor. But he is not looking to anyone but the poor for answers. "We can't go out and protest in the streets — the police will come and beat us. All we can do is hide that anger in our hearts, and slowly rebuild this country ourselves. It's our country. We can't see it fall."

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