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Pakistanis stay in flood zones to protect homes

Across the Pakistan flood zone, thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of people have decided to stay in their homes, often sleeping on rooftops because of the high water.
Villager Ghulam Raza works to reinforce the embankment to keep flood waters from entering into Hamdani Legari village near Moro, Pakistan.
Villager Ghulam Raza works to reinforce the embankment to keep flood waters from entering into Hamdani Legari village near Moro, Pakistan. Shakil Adil / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The old man stepped carefully through his village, dodging craters as deep as graves where they had been mining soil for embankments to hold back the floodwaters. Already, nearly half this village of tenant farmers had been destroyed. The crops wiped out.

But Mohammed Ayoub and his neighbors weren't leaving, not unless all the mud houses collapsed. It wasn't about pride, or a farmer's love for his village or the land he sows. It was a straightforward financial equation: They couldn't afford to lose what little they had left.

If, to an outsider, their belongings might look inconsequential — some goats, a couple buffalos, cheap metal cooking pots and transistor radios — it was everything to them. And with no way to take their possessions with them, they were not going to leave them for the looters.

Across the Pakistan flood zone, thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of people have decided to stay in their homes, often sleeping on rooftops because of the high water. Stranded on tiny islands a few inches above the water line and refusing offers of rescue, they are reflections of Pakistan today: its widespread poverty, the collapse of the traditional bonds between landlords and tenants, and the lack of confidence in authorities' willingness to protect them.

"The women were scared before we sent them away, and we're scared now," said Ayoub, a thin, courtly man with a white mustache wearing a dirt-stained shalwar kameez, the baggy shirt and pants ubiquitous across rural Pakistan.

He was one of about 30 men who remained as guardians and to build up the embankments in case of more flooding. About 400 villagers have already fled. "How can we all leave?" he asked. "We have to stay here if we want to protect what we own."

Another farmer, a young man, spoke up: "We're not scared of dying," Ghulam Raza said loudly. "We're scared of losing everything we have."

In reality, death is not much of a worry now in this part of Sindh province. The worst of the danger passed when the floods swept through more than a week ago, and even then no one here died. Life, though, is desperately miserable: There is little food, no electricity, the well is filled with brown flood water and there's nothing to do but dig more holes to shore up the embankments.

While doctors say cases of malaria and gastrointestinal diseases are spiking across the flooded areas, and there have been sporadic cases of cholera, there are enough fishing boats in this part of Sindh so people can flee to the shoreline if they want.

So in the twisted logic of Pakistan's floods, the people of Hamdani Legari could have done far worse.

Pakistan's troubles began in late July, when annual monsoon rains turned savage, and downpours began pounding the northwest. Within a few days, as much rain fell as the country normally receives in a year. About 1,500 people have died.

But that was only the beginning. The rain that had fallen in the mountainous northwest began flowing southward through the plains: swelling rivers, breaking through embankments, flooding an area the size of Italy and wreaking havoc across the agricultural heartland.

Millions of people were left homeless. On Sunday, flood levels had stabilized in central Sindh, where Hamdani Legari is located, but were surging further south in the province, closer to the Arabian Sea.

The village is in the flood plains of the Indus, a river that has fed societies in this part of the world for millennia and where villagers are long accustomed to monsoon flooding.

But on the morning of Aug. 14, a few hours before sunrise, they awoke to something strange and terrifying.

Past floods had risen a few inches (centimeters) a day, and normally stopped long before they devastated the crops. This one rose 6 feet (1.8 meters) in less than 24 hours, they say here, cutting off the village and swamping buildings.

In the island villages, the devastation is everywhere.

Take 40-year-old Nazir Ahmed, a deeply exhausted man who lived with his wife and six children in a two-room home on the edge of Hamdani Legari. He tried, in the first days after the floods, to build embankments against the water. But his land was just too low. Now he points toward the water to show where he raised his family, indicating a 10-foot (3-meter) mud pillar and a jumble of metal rods. "That is my house," he said.

It is how many people describe their flooded villages, using the present tense to talk about what used to exist.

"There is one house, and there is another," said Nazzar Mohammad, gesturing into the murky water just outside the nearby village of Izzat Khan Boghia. "There is our school," he said, pointing at ragged sheets of woven thatch sticking above the waterline.

Hamdani Legari, like most villages here, can seem a place from another century, with its houses and grain bins made of mud and its scarcity of store-bought goods.

It's a place where women are kept from public view, where few people earn more than a few hundred dollars per year, and where for generations the families of tenant farmers have been tied to the families of their landlords — the zamindars — working their fields in exchange for half the harvest.

A couple generations ago, the zamindar would have been a fiercer overlord — a man effectively free to treat his tenants however he saw fit — but he also would have been required by tradition to care for them during a calamity.

But after these floods, the zamindar of Hamdani Legari loaded his household goods into a metal trailer. Then using the village's only tractor, he slowly towed everything he owned to the shoreline.

No one was surprised he left. Ahmed, the man whose own home has already collapsed but who stayed on to help his neighbors, summed it up simply, "He did nothing for us."

These are people at the fringes of Pakistani society. They have no power, no influence, little money.

Here, people see the authorities simply as bribe-demanding bureaucrats. They are relieved the army brought boats to take away villagers who wanted to leave, but laughed when asked whether the police could protect their belongings if they also left for the shore.

"The police do not turn up even when blood is shed, when a man is murdered," said Ahmed. "There is no chance that they would protect the village's homes."

He shrugged when asked how he would support his family with his house and crops destroyed. Perhaps he could hire himself out as a day laborer, he said, earning a dollar or two a day working on farms or construction sites.

For now, he said, his concern was keeping the village dry.

And as he spoke, the current of warm brown floodwaters roiled past in ugly twists, its movement guided by roads and footpaths and fields of crops now hidden below the surface.