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Wartime disaster

Pakistan | Floodwaters don't stop for contested areas of Pakistan, nor halt a battle to bring relief between militants and true caregivers

Issue: "Rocks in their heads?," Sept. 11, 2010

In the pre-dawn hours during the month-long observance of Ramadan, Muslims rise in the darkness to pray and to eat their last meals until breaking their fast at nightfall. For millions of flood victims in the predominantly Muslim country of Pakistan, this year's fasting stretches far past nightfall and isn't voluntary: The country's worst flooding in decades has left suffering Pakistanis destitute and scrounging for enough food to survive.

The floods that have killed an estimated 1,600 people are an epic disaster for Pakistan: Government officials estimate that the weeks of flooding that began with monsoon rains in July have affected some 20 million people-more than the total number of people affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.

At their peak the floodwaters covered one-fifth of Pakistan, or over an estimated 52,000 square miles-an area larger than England. With an estimated 4 million people left homeless, the disaster continues: Waterborne diseases like cholera threaten the population, and destroyed infrastructure has made aid delivery painfully slow in places hardest hit.

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Pakistani officials have another worry: Some of the much-needed aid for flood victims is seeping out of dark corners. With an initially slow government response, Islamic charities with direct ties to terrorist organizations have emerged as some of the most effective relief groups for desperate communities.

Officials worry that terrorist groups at war with the Pakistani government-and the United States-may try to use disaster relief to woo support from local populations already wary of the Pakistani government and Western influence.

But militant groups aren't the only effective grassroots organizations in Pakistan. Local Christian churches are also mobilizing to help communities, though with a far lower profile. In a country with a record of severe persecution against religious minorities, churches are quietly working to relieve Christians from the devastations of flooding, while protecting themselves against opposition from militant groups that may not want their success.

At least three extremist groups have offered high-profile flood aid, setting up relief centers in Karachi and local communities since the flooding. Members of Falah-e-Insaniyat distributed food, clothing, and medical care to flood victims. The group acts as a charity wing and a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group that carried out the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India.

Aid is also flowing from Jamaat-ud-Dawa-the political arm of Lashkar. Despite its dubious label, members of the group marked out at least one of its relief centers by flying its identifying flag, emblazoned with a black sword. And Haqqania Madrassa, a militant boarding school that has graduated senior Taliban officials, is operating as a shelter and medical clinic for at least 2,500 people.

Desperate Pakistanis are eager to find help-whatever the source-and praise the efforts of the groups. Flood victim and retired police officer Gul Mohammad Khan told Reuters: "For us, they're angels."

In other corners of the country, Christian groups aren't flying flags. Wilson Saraj, a Pakistani-born Christian with the U.K.-based Barnabas Fund, said some churches and other Christian groups must be careful when delivering aid among militant populations. That sometimes means breaking up shipments of supplies instead of delivering them to churches at one time, and caring for families within the walls and gates of church compounds.

Barnabas Fund is sending aid to partner churches and Christian organizations in Pakistan that are offering food, shelter, clothing, and even rescue to flood victims: The group's partners worked with Pakistani military to arrange the helicopter evacuation of 102 stranded families from a remote village in Punjab Province.

While the need is severe for the masses of flood victims, Saraj says it can be even more pointed for the Christian minority: "Christians have already been marginalized in Pakistan and belong to the lowest part of society-menial jobs, poor education, discrimination, violence-it's already there even before the flood situation." (See sidebar.)

Saraj worries about militant Islamic groups infiltrating local populations with relief efforts: "It's not that some people are concerned-everyone is concerned." He says those efforts highlight the urgent need for effective help from other organizations and the international community.

Other groups are active in the country, including the Christian-based World Vision. The group reports that workers have delivered food and water to more than 21,000 flood victims, and have opened five emergency health clinics. Early efforts have been difficult: Workers faced impassable roads that made traveling to some locations impossible. As roads reopen, the agency hopes to provide aid to another 300,000 people over the next three months.

Military personnel also are active: The Pakistani army has taken a lead role in rescue efforts, despite a sluggish initial response from government officials in the capital that angered many citizens. U.S. military troops are assisting with relief and rescue, and U.S. officials pledged $150 million in aid.

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