In the heart of Pakistan’s flood zone, villagers refuse to flee submerged homes

KHAIPUR NATHANSHAH, Pakistan — Deep in Pakistan’s floodplain, tens of thousands of people are refusing to leave their villages, frustrating already overstretched relief efforts and threatening a dramatic rise in the death toll, Pakistani officials say.

Hundreds of villages have been flooded across Pakistan and are now only accessible by boat. Washington Post reporters gained rare media access to several submerged villages inside Dadu District, where waters stretch to the horizon in all directions.

The only evidence of the immense devastation below the surface are occasional splinters of a roof, mosque minarets, power lines, treetops and traffic lights half obscured by marshy waters.

About a third of Pakistan is under water according to some analysis of satellite images. The floods, caused by a combination of heavy monsoon rains and unusually high glacial melt, are the worst to hit the country in recorded history, Pakistani officials say. More than 33 million people have been affected and nearly 1,400 people have died. Nearly a third of the dead are children.

Every day, dozens of boats pass in front of Raza Mohammad a shelter of tree branches and reeds erected on a narrow retaining wall offering him a walk to higher ground, but each time he brushes them aside.

Even in the midst of this immense disaster, he refuses to leave. Fleeing now would mean leaving behind his livestock – all he has left of value after his village was flooded – and he doesn’t trust the government to care for him and his family on dry land.

“To be honest, I don’t want to stay here, but I can’t leave without my cattle. I would have nothing left,” he said.

Like many in rural areas of Sindh province, Mohammad and his family lived on the equivalent of around four dollars a day. After the flood, he could not work. Without his animals, he could not support his wife and three children, he said.

“We never thought the waters would reach this level, otherwise we would have left earlier and taken our animals with us,” he said. A retaining wall had been built by the Pakistani government to protect its area after the last massive flood in 2010.

Mohammad and his neighbors thought the wall would hold. But it suddenly broke out in the middle of the night. Within hours, what was about a foot of rain turned into a torrent of water. By morning, almost the whole village was gone, he said.

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“People in these areas have become accustomed to flooding,” said Pakistan Army Lt. Col. Ejaz Karin, who oversees rescue and relief operations in Dadu district. But Karin said he doesn’t believe the families who refuse to be rescued understand that it could take weeks or months for the waters to drain.

If thousands of people continue to remain in flooded villages, Karin said it would create “a food emergency” and a health crisis, further extending relief efforts and causing a sudden increase in mortality.

Food distribution in these flooded villages is intermittent and largely organized by individuals. Sometimes boats arrive daily. Other times, three days can pass without any deliveries, locals say. The rations families receive consist of flour, rice, tea and sugar.

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Another farmer who took shelter on the muddy embankment, Miril Solengi, said he was grateful for the food deliveries but ran out of animal feed and could not afford to buy more .

“If we can’t feed our buffaloes,” he paused. “I don’t know what we will do. Our lives depend on these animals. All we can do is wait for the waters to recede.

In the village of Solengi, the flood waters are 15 feet high. And at the current rate, they are receding about two to three inches a day.

“We have already warned them, please leave your homes and get to safety, but they refuse,” Sona Khan Chandio, Deputy Commissioner of Khaipur Nathanshah, said in an interview.

He said the government sent health teams to visit families left behind in the flooded area, but the teams were unable to reach everyone. “We are doing our best,” he said, adding that those who refuse to be rescued have a responsibility to “take care of themselves.”

Budhari Solangi, 24, who sat with a group of other women in a tent made of reeds and tattered cloth, said all the children who remained fell ill. “They have fevers and skin diseases that we have never seen before,” she said.

She called her 7-year-old son back from the crumbling edge of the mud bank. She lifted her foot to reveal a bumpy rash on her ankle. “I don’t know what it is,” she said.

While some boats deliver food, she said no one has brought medicine to her area. The Pakistan Navy tried to encourage her to leave, but she said she didn’t want to break up her family and heard horror stories about the conditions on high ground.

Families rescued by boat are being dropped off along a highway miles from the nearest government camp, she said. And walking with young children would be impossible.

“Our only option is to stay,” she said.

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At the water’s edge, Pakistani navy officers set up a staging area to expand rescue operations and assess the damage. Behind them, hundreds of families who had chosen to flee their villages were packed along the highway. Many were still wet from the trip. Others had been there for more than a week, living in shelters they had erected themselves.

Under a tent made of branches, scarves and woven reeds, a group of women brandished small sacks of cooked rice and begged passers-by for help.

“That’s all they gave us!” Naveeda Naich shouted from across the road, pointing to security forces a few yards away. “Nothing else, not even milk for our grandchildren.”

When a food ration truck stopped, the women told their children to run towards it.

“We send our sons and daughters to look for food because the authorities are less harsh on them,” Gulam Zohra said. Her husband once tried to bring food for the family, but was badly beaten by security forces as he tried to push his way through the crowd, she said.

The aid truck was quickly surrounded by desperate people looking for food, and police armed with batons tried to disperse the crowd.

“Look how they treat us,” Zohra said, watching the scene and starting to cry.

Naich insulted a passing Pakistani police truck. “You are dogs! All of you dogs! I’m spitting on you!” She screamed.

Zohra said she thought she was protecting her family by leaving her belongings behind and fleeing the floods, but now she is horrified by the conditions they live in.

“They don’t respect us,” she said of the authorities. “They just treat us brutally.”

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