Pakistani refugees showing some can-do spirit

At least 1,600 are dead and millions are homeless after monsoon rains bloated rivers, submerged villages and triggered landslides in Pakistan.
By Karin Brulliard
Sunday, September 5, 2010; 7:59 PM

IN SUKKUR, PAKISTAN As ruined lives and landscapes threaten Pakistan's fragile government, another dismal reality might help save it: The refugees from this summer's catastrophic floods have profoundly low expectations of their leaders.

On a recent afternoon, rural farmers who fled the flooding stoically tended cattle at a makeshift roadside camp in this bustling city. Except for a team that had once come to give polio vaccinations, they were unable to recall any government presence in their village - ever.

"All the previous governments, including Zia ul-Haq and then Nawaz Sharif and then Benazir Bhutto and then [Pervez] Musharraf and then this one - none is doing anything for our welfare," Mohammed Khan Jafri, 50, who said his 12 children do not attend the village public school because it has no teachers. "We are just dependent on God."

The devastating flood has sparked palpable public frustration with Pakistan's government, worrying U.S. officials overseeing the allocation of billions of aid dollars to shore up civilian authority in a nation with a history of military coups and an intense Islamist insurgency. But among many of the Pakistani victims, it has also revealed a resilience borne of life on the margins of a country where the state has long been a far-off notion.

Pakistan is quickly urbanizing, but its rural majority was most affected by the floods. In those remote, impoverished mountains and plains, electricity is scarce, schooling and health care are luxuries and home is often a mud structure built by hand. Many flood refugees who have streamed into cities with cattle and dented trucks described carefully honed survival skills but only a tenuous attachment to government.

"We will have to do everything on our own," said Sohaib Pahore, 35, another roadside refugee in Sukkur who had fled his flooded village.

Even in the inundated rice paddies surrounding this ruling party stronghold - Bhutto hailed from the area and the former prime minister remains a virtual deity to locals - most assistance comes from relatives. Authority usually lies in the hands of large landowners or tribal chiefs known as sardars, and they often have hand-in-glove relationships with the government.

Commonly known as "the influential people," they settle disputes, lease plots of land and might offer charity or loans. In interviews, some landlords said they would help their flooded farmworkers. Several workers predicted otherwise, and some said they almost understood.

"Our landlord's land is flooded," said Momal Pahore, 30, who was also camped by a busy Sukkur road 30 miles from her village. "He has become like us."

Analysts say the flooding remains a real threat to stability, even if many Pakistanis expect little from the government. The base of the ruling Pakistan People's Party is in rural Sindh province, but it governs in an alliance with two other parties that dominate in the Sindh city of Karachi. As rural flood victims flow into the city, that coalition has showed signs of fraying.

The vast scale of the disaster might be creating levels of deprivation that even the most self-reliant Pakistani will not withstand, analysts say. With new floods spreading five weeks after the start of the crisis, thousands remain stranded and at least a million people have received no aid at all, the government says. Entire extended families have lost everything, obliterating customary routes of assistance. Agriculture has been battered, and food prices - which have previously triggered riots in Pakistan - are rising.

"This is a test case for the government," said Inamullah Khan Dharejo, the top civilian administrator in Sukkur, where the government is running 232 fairly orderly tent camps. But Dharejo also said he worried too much aid "could create a dependency on government."

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