SEPTEMBER 2010-PAKISTAN: It seemed that nobody was spared anymore. I entered the Ummah Camp tent site almost two months later after Pakistan was hit by the worst possible flooding the country had seen since its birth. I was met with a deafening stillness that chilling me to the bones, strangely I sensed something very profound and don’t know how and why, but I didn’t bring out my pen or notepad.
This camp was full of young children aged between ages of four and sixteen. None of them had any proper shoes or feet wear. Their dirty appearance and unkempt condition spoke volumes. Something inside me started hurting, so bad. The thing that hit me the most hard was their complete silence.
Many were going about doing chores that elders had instructed them to do so. But if approached none of them moved a bone, it was as they were not really in this world. I sat on the ground next to eight-year old Kiran who was busy cutting grass.
She did not register nor did she acknowledge my presence. Some half an hour later, an elderly man (flood affectee) walking up to his tent found us in this state. He said “Bibi (means lady), what do you want with her, she will not speak, we havent’ heard her voice since two months now.”
But this silence could not be broken. I understood her somehow, I got up respecting her decision and walked away to another direction where few more children could be seen doing similar chores.
Here I met eleven year old Rizwan trying to pile together dry grass shoots. I learned his name from the women washing dishes in dirty water beside their badly damaged tent. He had just finished three rounds of cutting grass and carrying the load back to camp. This chore is taxing even a strong adult man’s energy, it was simply too much for a child.
My heart screamed again, but I willed it to stay silent. Now I see Rizwan feeding his young goat with grass. He looked extremely tired, but nevertheless he continued his job. The women told me that he had watched the flood waters swallow up, bit by bit, his home and family members.
He is now an orphan, thanks to these horrifying floods. An affected family from his village took pity on his state and gave him a home. But what home? Their tent was barely able to keep four inhabitants and I wondered about the sleeping arrangements. I was informed that the family members take rounds to provide him space to sleep inside the tents during night-time. This little boy who was wearing a light cotton local dress and had no shoes nor socks.
During the daytime, he makes do with staying outside and keeping busy with menial chores. I debated whether to try initiating a conversation or not with him. In the end, I sat down near him and his goat while he fed her.
As God is my witness, Rizwan didn’t budge. Few minutes passed in silence. An inner voice told me to continue sitting near the children. And so I did, like I have done since long these years.
Being a disaster reporter is not piece of joke, I can tell you that I do posses strong nerves otherwise I wasn’t today where I am. BUT.
Ummah Camp visit had an extraordinary effect on me. It made me question my own self and my involvement in the development world. This disaster made me angry, very very angry.
I was really really upset that high-profile dignitaries from UN (international celebrities like Angelina Jolie etc), International organizations, local government officials were keen to pose for cameras on their visits and humanitarian tours at really much better-provisioned camp that had been set beside this sad-looking tent site. But these people were deliberately ignored.
Why were Kiran, Rizwan and other little ones ignored in Ummah Camp???
The silent treatment from the children here was speaking volumes to me. However the women and men residing in this camp fumed at the appalling response from Pakistani government and international community. The only support observed here came from the local branch of the Ummah Welfare Trust, a U.K.-based Islamic charity.
It’s quite crustal clear crimes against humanity continue to be done by the very people and institutions that boast of human rights. This is not the first time and won’t be the last either.
It was quite shocking to hear camp residents say that the only time government representatives have talked to them is when the local police needs verification whether the banner”Ummah Trust” could be some militant faction initiative. Just because the words Ummah are coming from Arabic language. I was lucky to speak with the Ummah officials present on site and they confirmed to have managed mostly through soliciting but small donations from their networks.
Honestly, 2010 floods made me realize that I’m terribly exhausted. I have tried to rationalize my fears, I tried to compartmentalize my fears, distract myself by reporting on other lighter aspects, but there is no escaping this central conflict in my life. After the challenging flood assignments came to an end, I started feeling strange. I was more than the usual tired and losing interest in everything around me. My insomnia returned with a vengeance. I spent almost several months going about doing my thing, I traveled to Bangkok to deliver a training on human rights with my mentor to Burmese peace activists. I returned back to Pakistan and worked like a dog finishing other projects and so on. Basically I did what was my job, training, mentoring, editing and whatever. The one thing I couldn’t do was writing as I used to do before going to Ummah Camp.
I keep watching Kiran and Rizwan in my dreams.
I keep thinking of little Pakistani children stuck in lives of misery and struggle.
I keep imagining that one day children in my country will have a better future.
I keep hoping against hope and against all odds.
– PRIVATE JOURNAL ACCOUNT: 29 September 2010
* All photographs have been taken with consent from Camp Officials and refugee families.