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Aid begins to trickle in to flood-ravaged northwestern Pakistan

At least 1,600 are dead and millions are homeless after monsoon rains bloated rivers, submerged villages and triggered landslides in Pakistan.

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By Griff Witte
Tuesday, August 3, 2010

NOWSHERA, PAKISTAN -- When the mocha-brown waters of the Kabul River came to Humayusadn Khan's living room, there was only one way to go: up.

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Khan's family scrambled to the second floor, then to the roof. There, Khan, his wife and their six children clung precariously for three days and nights as the river lapped at their heels and the rains heaved relentlessly from above.

"We had nothing," the fruit vendor said. "No food to eat, nothing to drink."

On Monday, Khan, 49, was on dry land but feeling no less forsaken. The flood had taken everything from him except his family, and it was unclear whether his government could help.

Northwestern Pakistan is accustomed to being at the center of world attention. It is the heart of a vicious insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives nationwide and a haven for fighters who terrorize U.S. troops across the border in Afghanistan.

For residents who are uninvolved in the fighting, last week's floods -- the worst in the region in 81 years -- constitute just the latest calamity to strike without warning or provocation.

Earthquakes, Taliban suicide bombers and army offensives have brought their share of suffering to northwestern Pakistan. Even under the best of circumstances, residents must contend with deep levels of poverty and a government that often appears indifferent to their plight.

Aid began to trickle in Monday, but it is not enough to make much impact after a disaster that has taken at least 1,200 lives and affected 2.5 million. The United States was quick to announce an assistance package that includes $10 million and nearly 200,000 meals, but those contributions are little more than a rumor in some of the worst-hit areas.

Even when aid is available, getting it to the people with the greatest need is difficult because many areas are inaccessible.

"The distribution of relief is severely constrained by damaged infrastructure, and the widespread contamination of water supplies has the potential to create major health problems," said Muhammad Ateeb Siddiqui, director of operations for the Pakistan Red Crescent Society.

The worst might not have passed: Forecasters predict more rain for the region this week and say floods could extend to other parts of the country.

Along the Grand Trunk Road, the ancient trade route linking the regional capital of Peshawar to the national capital of Islamabad, an exodus was underway Monday as thousands of people walked in search of shelter.

Women, their pink shalwars streaked with mud, led children by the hand as they sought out spots in makeshift camps that filled up as quickly as they opened. Men used frayed ropes to guide water buffalo through traffic, having taken their livestock because they are unsure when they will next see their fields.

In the towns, merchants threw hundreds of carpets -- each one saturated and soiled a deep brown -- into the street. Children picked through the muck for discarded valuables. Refrigerators stood empty along roads that had buckled and twisted beneath the powerful currents. At a graveyard, the tips of headstones peeked out just above the waterline.

The government has said that it is doing its best to meet the population's needs but that resources are limited. The chief minister of the hardest-hit province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, called the floods the worst natural disaster the area has seen. "It has pushed the province almost 50 years back," said Amir Haider Khan Hoti.

At one government camp Monday, families were given a worn canvas tent, a bottle of water and two pieces of bread. It was better than the alternative.

"We don't know whether we will be here for a week or a month," said Omar Basha, 53, who had arrived in the camp with his wife and two sons. "How can we go back to our homes when we don't know whether anything is left for us there?"

At a nearby traffic circle, Islamic charities were seeking to fill the void left by the government, offering food and health services to anyone in need.

"It is a large-scale disaster, and we are providing whatever we can," said Mohammed Hanza, a relief official with the charitable wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the country's main religious parties.

He scoffed at the notion that U.S. aid was reaching the people. "Those dollars are going into the pockets of our rulers," he said.

For Khan, the fruit vendor, it matters little who provides help. He just knows he needs it.

Having survived the flood atop his roof, he, his wife and their six children must find a new place to live because their home is uninhabitable. Meanwhile, one of their daughters has a fractured leg, and Khan has an injured back after falling from a boat while being rescued. He received treatment Monday at a makeshift health clinic that had been wedged into a school classroom.

"Maybe the government will help us," Khan said as he walked off in search of his family, bracing himself with a cane. "But there are no assurances."



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