As Khushal Khan, a teacher, emerged from a half-hour long helicopter ride to the safety of the Pakistani Khwazakhela airbase, he tuned to shake hands with the American pilot who had brought him across the Swat region's muddy mountain terrain that would have taken days to cover on foot.
He wiped the sweat from his forehead and began the second leg of his journey to Swat's main town of Mingora to fetch food for his family, urging authorities to rebuild the bridge that connects his home village of Matilan to the rest of the region.
“If the roads aren’t reopened soon, we will all starve to death,” he said.
Flood waters that killed hundreds of residents swept away some 260 bridges in the Swat Valley have begun to recede, and the rain has eased for now. But officials here warn of a catastrophic second wave of problems for the thousands of residents that remain cut-off from aid. If more bridges aren't repaired quickly, say locals and experts, aid could fail to reach the thousands of residents that remain cut-off even as meteorologists predict more heavy rains in the south in the coming weeks.
The village of Matiltan is one of many communities that is hard to access after a bridge connecting it to the main area of Swat, along with some 30 miles of road, gave way during the floods. Khan and other rescued residents from the area say that, so far, 70 bags of food-aid have been dropped in by the United Nations World Food Program: not nearly enough to feed the village’s 15,000 residents.
Though international donors have sent $184 million, or 40 percent of the $450 million requested by the UN, officials say that pledged aid is arriving too slowly. A further $68 million has been pledged by donors, including a $25 million dollar pledge announced by the EU Wednesday.
Adding to the list of pledges, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani visited the Swat on Wednesday and announced the federal government would provide thousands of tons of food to the beleaguered Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and promised compensation to the families of those who had lost their lives or property in the floods, according to the state news agency. “We will not leave you in this hour of distress,” he said.
Though that's helpful, Daniel Toole, the South Asia regional director for Unicef, says that as the flooding in Pakistan is “probably the biggest emergency on the planet today,” it's not enough. “We cannot spend pledges," he says. "We cannot buy purification tablets, we cannot support Pakistan with pledges.”
Pakistanis take things into their own hands
At the airbase, Mr. Khan, along with a band of school teachers from his village, now plan to make a 3-day trek by foot first to the markets of Swat’s main town of Mingora, to procure food and medicine, then take it back to their families in the mountains in a round-trip of some 60 miles. “We were watching our children starve, so we had to go get help,” he explains.
The men are visibly weak and shaken by their experience. “I had to sneak out of my home so my children did not know I was leaving, else they would not stop crying” says Jamshed Ali, another teacher. Despite the lack of food, Ali says his family continues to fast during the Islamic month of Ramadan, eating cucumbers and drinking water at the traditional Iftaar, or meal to break the fast.
Struggling to supply aid, but relationships are building
Pakistani and US soldiers meanwhile, are struggling to supply the cut-off regions with supplies before the next heavy rains arrive. For its part, the US says it has so far rescued over 3,500 people and sent 230 tons of food aid to flood victims in Chinook, Blackhawk, and CH-47 helicopters flown in from the Ghazi airbase.
There is also some evidence that the US help has been generating some good will in a region once ruled over by Swat Taliban chief Maulana Fazlullah and his father-in-law and firebrand preacher Sufi Muhammad, who led thousands of young men from Swat into battle against US forces in Afghanistan in 2001.
Abdul Sattar, an elderly man who had just been rescued in a Chinook, told the Monitor: “Even if it’s an enemy country giving us help, we are still very grateful and indebted to them.” Khushal Khan, the teacher, added: “These people who want to see peace realize that America is not our enemy.”
US Army Captain Michael Parker says that the villagers often shake his hand and elderly women sometimes embraced military officers. “It’s great to be a part of this humanitarian effort,” he says. “The situation out there is very sad, but I know if my country was in trouble I’d want others to help out.”
Still, according to officers at the airbase, Pakistani troops remain on high alert to foil any potential attacks should the Taliban attempt to take advantage of the situation and launch further attacks in the region that was last wrested from their control in an Army operation last July. Some 30,000 troops, they say, have been committed to rescue and reliefe operations around the country, while the Army continues to hold territory from the Taliban in Western tribal areas.
On Wednesday, militants killed two civilians active in anti-Taliban militias in the city of Peshawar. “As the police force is busy in rescue and relief work for flood affectees, militants tried to take advantage of the situation to attack Peshawar, but the police force was fully alert and vigilant,” police chief Liaqat Ali Khan said. At checkposts throughout Swat, police are checking residents identity alongside "Most wanted" posters of known Taliban fighters.
For now though, the Pakistan Army remains quietly confident. “We fought off the Taliban and now we will fight the floods,” said one Pakistan Army captain who says he was injured twice by Taliban attacks last year.
No bridges no trade, no aid
Areas along the banks of the River Swat felt the full force of the flash floods and forest and buildings and roads were reduced to rubble. The Pakistan Army swiftly rebuilt two bridges, including historic the Chakdara bridge which was built by British forces in the 19th century, and is overlooked by a hilltop fort known as the “Churchill Picket” where a young Winston Churchill was posted during the 1890s.
The loss of so many bridges is what's hurting local trade for those residents whose farms were left intact from the floods, particularly the trade of peaches, onions, and the tomatoes, which Swat is famous for. “Our goods are now spoiling before they get to the market” says Khalil Rehman, a farmer, as he waits in a long line on the banks of the River Swat to get access to Army-operated rescue boats and carry a small portion of his peaches across the river.
Government officials say that reopening the bridges must be the first priority, followed by much more food aid. “The roads are so important as without them everything else becomes so much harder,” says Feroz Shah, Director General of the National Commission for Human Development, a government department. “Then comes the food aid, the medical aid, and the revival of agriculture, upon which this region depends.”
Asked when the government would begin the rehabilitation work in earnest, Shah said: “Doing the needs assessment and the survey is the easy part. But right now I don’t think we are equipped to manage the situation.”