At the USAID distribution site at a flood relief camp in Sindh province, a young woman queuing up with her teenaged son to receive her food donation somehow stood out in the crowd and caught my attention.
It could have been the slippers on her feet, while most others were barefoot, or perhaps the dignified way she waited in line. I approached her, and she told me her name was Murada and that Larkana, her village, had been totally wiped out by the flood. As she chattered about all the land she used to own and crops she had cultivated, much like we were two neighbors having afternoon tea, an expected rush of emotions came over me.
“I miss my rifle the most, you know,” she said matter-of-factly, my eyes widening as she explained that she was a widow, and her late husband had taught her to use the firearm.
“A Russian single barrel,” she added proudly, “to protect myself of course.” I shook my head as I contemplated that though Murda had lost her home, fifteen acres of land including ten under cultivation, and six bovines, she preferred to discuss her missing rifle.
Amazing indeed, that this woman, until recently comparatively wealthy, was now collecting a food sack marked “USAID,” and recounting a heartbreaking story in such a sprightly manner. It was only when I asked “so what about the future?” did the façade crumble, and a look of abject grief came over her face. My heart sank as I realized that despite her sunny demeanor, she was just one more victim of this terrible tragedy.
From rugged Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to the fields of Punjab, down to the coastal plains of Sindh, I witnessed the same horror and devastation of total loss in three weeks of monitoring visits. Beyond their possessions, some have literally lost their land – washed away by the mighty Indus River after it broached its embankments for hundreds of miles.
Over and over I heard tales of hopelessness – no agency, representative, not even a landlord who was willing to take responsibility for their welfare and survival. In such a state, they were more than eager to voice their frustration to a representative of a donor agency in the hope of finding someone who might actually help them.
Through my work with USAID, I could offer some degree of help in the form of the thousands of donated relief kits that included two weeks worth of food, cooking utensils, buckets for collecting water and soap to wash. They were eager to narrate their harrowing experience to someone working for the American government, which many called their savior.
As I opened each parcel to verify its contents before distributing the kits, I could see the appreciation in their eyes, gratitude that someone was concerned enough to ensure that they receive each and every item that was sent for them – and just lend them a sympathetic ear.
Aside from different regional languages and attire, my experience in three provinces was pretty much the same everywhere I went. Much as I tried not to cry, recurring scenes of poverty and helplessness invariably brought tears to my eyes.
Yet at the same time, I couldn’t help feeling another emotion welling up inside: hope. Women like Murada, who spoke bravely about her loss and even tried to stay well-dressed amid the squalor, seemed to me to represent the glimmer, however small, of a better future.
I was able to play a small part by promising those with whom I spoke that the American people would not abandon them in their hour of need. I was grateful the people of America provided a platform to help make a difference in the lives of so many in need. The difference hope brings.
Naazlee Sardar serves as USAID Pakistan Senior Education Advisor, and spent three weeks in October monitoring USAID-supported relief activities in flood-affected areas across Pakistan.