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In flood-ravaged Pakistan, no sign of American aid

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, September 29, 2010; A21

PIR SABAK, PAKISTAN

The national disaster, as people call it, happened two months ago, but the elders of this village still sound dazed as they describe how the floodwaters surged over the banks of the Kabul River and raced through their mud-brick homes, rising chest-high in the space of 30 minutes.

The villagers left behind everything they had and ran for the humpbacked hills just north of town, behind the local graveyard. They were stranded on the hilltops, tens of thousands of people clinging to a mud-rock ark, wailing through the night until the water receded. There was no help at first, from anywhere.

When the waters ebbed, the farming village east of Peshawar had been ruined. More than 24,000 of the 31,000 inhabitants were displaced. Perhaps 2,500 of their 3,500 homes were destroyed. The crops and much of the livestock were gone, and the fields were left unusable for at least six months.

"Everything was underwater -- clothes, shoes, money -- it was all destroyed," says Hasan Nawab, a 35-year-old farmer. His neighbor Noor Karam, a 45-year-old man now sharing a tent with his eight children, says it may take years to rebuild his simple house: "How will we live? Only God can say."

Truly, these people are the wretched of the earth, plagued by bad weather, bad luck, bad security and, most jarringly, bad government. They are living entirely on charity -- sleeping in tents provided by the Turkish Red Crescent and eating food supplied by a Pakistani aid society. The Human Development Foundation, a Pakistani relief group that brought me to the village, is offering medical care and money to buy seeds and rebuild homes.

And what has the Pakistani government done to help relieve the misery? When I asked the elders gathered in the tent city, there was a chorus of shouts that the government had done nothing. A local political agent "shows his face, but he doesn't do anything," mutters one of the town elders. It's apparently similar across Pakistan, where more than 20 million people have been affected by the flooding, and the government response has been weak and disorganized.

"The government was not prepared for this kind of disaster, and they were taken aback," says Azhar Saleem, chief executive of the Human Development Foundation. "Whatever efforts were made, they were not sufficient."

Poor Pakistan: The flood has deepened a national mood that often seems close to despair. Whether you're talking with flood-stricken farmers or businessmen at an Islamabad cricket club, you hear the same basic comments: The country's problems are getting worse, and the weak civilian government can't cope. Everyone wants stronger political leadership, but nobody seems to know where to find it.

The press reflects the national malaise, judging from the headlines in last Sunday's papers describing the latest squabbles among the governing elite: "Is the country headed for a point of no return?" asks a story in The News. "Democracy at the brink?" muses a column in the Daily Times. "A threatened government," warns a commentary in Dawn. And that's just one day's harvest of pessimism.

The only positive note I heard was that the Taliban insurgency doesn't seem to have benefited from the disaster. Villagers in Pir Sabak said they hadn't seen anyone from the Taliban, and analysts in Islamabad agreed that the insurgents hadn't taken advantage of the disorder. "These people have hibernated," says Saleem. "Right now they do not have the resources to come out and help the flood victims."

A visit here is a reminder not to confuse pious Muslims with extremists. When I arrived, villagers were erecting a big tent to serve as a mosque -- even before they had built a school for their kids. When I asked what they thought about America, they had no criticisms. "We are in a time of need, and we are looking for help from anywhere," said Mohammed Ali, a white-bearded man who was helping raise the canvas mosque.

The U.S. military has been working hard to provide flood assistance, but most of that is invisible to Pakistanis. They read about American drone attacks but not about helicopters bringing food supplies. That lack of recognition upsets U.S. officials, but they haven't been able to change it.

On a day's tour of the northern flood zone, I saw posters for Turkish, British and other European relief groups, but not one sign of American help. That's a missed opportunity. These people still need help desperately, and they will remember those who visibly provided it.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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