New Internationalist

After the floods… A North Frontier village makes a comeback

Issue 445

Merryl Wyn Davies visits a remote village in Northwest Frontier to find out how it is recovering from last year’s devastating floods.

Iva Zimova / Panos
Starting over: a woman plasters the new home she has built. Iva Zimova / Panos

The narrow alleyways of Pir Sabaq are cluttered with piles of stone and bricks. At every turn the clatter of construction work can be heard. One year on from the floods, this small village in the Khyber Pashtoonkqua region of the Northwest Frontier is on the mend. In late spring it is surrounded by lush green fields of ripening wheat. But the bustle and activity of rural life is a thin veneer. The trauma that overwhelmed this village is not hard to find.

A short walk behind the alleyways of mud and stone houses brings you to the river. At the most elevated point on the river bank, an old shrine is still standing. It’s a 19th century monument to a Sikh commander in the long-departed army of Ranjit Singh. It stands in front of the most imposing building the village has to offer, a three-storey brick edifice. On the side of the building, level with the top of the second floor, a banner proclaims that the Labour Education Foundation is building a new school in the enclosure next door.

Then someone explains that the banner marks the height the flood waters reached.

Pir Sabaq stands at the confluence of the Kabul and Swat rivers. Look upstream from the old shrine, and the elegant bend where the two rivers merge is visible, about half a mile away at the far end of the village. Both rivers run from the mountains, where monsoon rains gave birth to the devastation that swept down the whole course of the Indus Valley to the sea. Pir Sabaq stood in the path of a perfect storm as two walls of water converged.

One year on and almost all the houses are rebuilt. There are only a few remaining reed huts with their distinctive blue plastic roofs, the temporary disaster shelters, left dotted around the edges of the village. But the people of Pir Sabaq will be living with the nightmare and the consequences of the devastation all their lives.

For them, nature and normality can never really be trusted again. The land one lives on is only seemingly solid; clouds are potential threats. One day this world could liquefy again. What comes after floods is all uncertain, fraught with the fear and anxiety that abide as the rebuilding of lives goes on.

The night it rained

Adrees Latif / Reuters
The 2010 floods devastated parts of Northwest Frontier. Adrees Latif / Reuters

Ask any villager what happened and a torrent of words pours out. They cannot help reliving that night when it rained and rained. They tell of the sudden alert and everyone running for the rocky spine of mountains beyond the village. So desperate was the scramble to get to high ground there was no time to take anything with them. ‘We could not even take our holy books with us,’ says Abida, a mother of four. ‘I did not even have a shawl to cover me,’ adds Dilraj, a young widow with a child. This is the ultimate mark of indignity in a village where women traditionally wear the veil as their personal badge of honour and self-worth.

When daylight came they saw that Pir Sabaq had disappeared beneath the waters. It took three days before aid reached them on the barren rocks and 17 days for the waters to subside. Not only their houses, but everything they contained had been washed away.

All the animals were gone too. For a farming village, this is a multiple loss: animals are a source of transport, they pull ploughs and work machines, and are a source of milk and meat. All this had to be replaced or substituted from outside for money, which was in as short supply as the beasts of the fields.

Everyone ends their reminiscences with the same thought: what if it happens again? There are no more savings, no nest eggs to rely on, no family members from whom to borrow, no credit rating, few jobs to be had and everyone in the same boat – or, rather, without a boat to float.

Yet Pir Sabaq had some good fortune. The Labour Education Foundation (LEF), a local affiliate of the International Federation of Workers Education Associations, had for some time been running projects in the village with the local stonecutters union. It is the main source of employment, producing chippings for roadworks and construction. ‘We had workers and volunteers on hand who knew the village and its people. Our presence convinced aid agencies they [too] could work here. They tried to poach our people and we were happy to oblige,’ explains Khalid Mahmood, LEF’s director.

Painted signs on the compound walls that surround the rebuilt houses testify to the variety of agencies which set to work here. Some 1,700 houses in a village with a population of 6,000 were destroyed, the rest were damaged. There was plentiful work for the aid agencies, which also provided seed for planting. ‘It was better quality seed than they had previously. That’s why the fields are so lush,’ says Khalid Mahmood. That and the fact that the floods deposited their own small compensation: the silt they tore from the deforested mountains has replenished the fields.

The next challenge

Rebuilding the houses and replanting the fields was the immediate priority. The next challenge was creating jobs and providing education.

As Khalid Mahmood observes, before the floods the LEF had great difficulty in reaching out to the women of the village. Now, women who previously would have resisted leaving their homes are running classes in embroidery, tailoring and how to tend poultry. The regular sessions at the LEF compound in the village are boisterous, offering companionship and mutual consolation as well as a potential route to better financial times. ‘I will sew for other people and this will be good,’ says Dilraj, mother of a ‘special’ child (as children with disabilities are known in the village). She also cares for her aged mother and her sister’s nine-month-old son. Her classmate, Abida, strikes a note of caution: ‘Everybody lost everything. Sellers need buyers – it won’t be easy.’

The villagers sense that aid agencies have their own agenda, while their government has simply been ineffective. Their answer is to do more for themselves

The villagers are grateful for the aid received but it has not answered all their needs; nor has it been available to everyone. They also sense that aid agencies have their own agenda, while their government has simply been ineffective. Their answer is to do more for themselves. ‘It’ll be my own hard work and it’ll benefit all,’ says Mehnaz, one of the young women in the village.

Mastering life after the floods in Pir Sabaq seems to vindicate the old adage ‘what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger’. ‘We are more aware that we have rights and entitlements now,’ confirms local entrepreneur Behramand. ‘We have to learn how to get what we need and what we should have.’

Coping with disaster has brought new community leaders to the fore. They are focused on the village’s needs and equipped with a new attitude and determination. What the future holds is uncertain. But one thing is clear: the village has brought a spirit of enterprise out of the waters and found its own voice. ‘Before, no-one listened. Now the village demands.’

Merryl Wyn Davies is a writer and anthropologist and the co-author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Islam.

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