Children bear the brunt of Pakistan's nightmare

The youngest are often the last to eat when disaster strikes, as Andrew Buncombe discovers in Hasanwala, central Punjab
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The Independent Online

His small silver car had only made it halfway across the long stretch of submerged road when the engine spluttered, stalled and died, but Dilawar Dil was not perturbed.

As those in the backseat sighed and readied themselves to get out and push, Mr Dil could only smile.

This was a good day, he explained. Having rescued his mother and grandmother several days ago from their flooded village, today – with the help of the Pakistan army – he had gone back for his younger brother and his 14-year-old sister, who were now travelling with him. "We did not have enough food to manage," whispered his shy sister, Sana, her head wrapped in a pink dupatta.

Here, in the most remote, hard-to-reach areas of central Punjab, stranded people continue to be saved every day. Two weeks after unprecedented monsoon rains started causing chaos and devastation in the north-west of the country, in this region the effects are still being felt. Further south, in Sindh province, it is likely that the worst is yet to come. In recognition, President Asif Ali Zardari has cancelled all celebrations for Pakistan's Independence Day today.

Half the people being rescued by the troops and volunteers are children. Experts estimate that of the 14 million people affected by these floods, six million children are at risk. In every natural disaster, it is often children who suffer the most. When food is in short supply, they are often the last to eat, they are more vulnerable to contagious diseases and water-borne illnesses such as cholera, and under such hardship a child's needs may not always be a family's priority.

In these floods, many children, inclined to swim and splash in the deep brown waters, have been attacked by snakes. "We had a boy bitten by a snake just a couple of hours ago," said Zaqlain Abbas, the officer in charge of the army's rescue mission near Hasanwala, and whose men had rescued the family of Mr Dil. "We had to take him to hospital."

Mohammed Khalid was taking no chances with his five children. It was the 9th Balouch Regiment's seventh or eighth mission of the day, but when the farmer and his family finally clambered on to a boat, there was a definite sense of relief. "All five of my children are on board. I don't care about what else I have left behind," said Mr Khalid, as his children crouched in the bottom of the boat and hugged their mother. "It has been hard for the children. There are no shops, if they became ill there is nowhere to buy medicine."

Not every child in Hasanwala was so fortunate. At one point, the soldiers became impatient when one man they were trying to rescue prevaricated over whether he wanted to take his three children with him or his motorbike. In the end, he dithered too long and the boat pushed off without the motorbike, the children or the man.

Those such as Mr Khalid who had friends, family or a property in nearby cities such as Muzaffargarh were the lucky evacuees. Others were forced to go to one of the makeshift camps which have been set up in schools and other buildings.

At the Workers' Welfare Public School in Muzaffargarh, four families from the flooded village of Kot Addu were camped out on the concrete floor of a classroom. They had 15 children between them, the youngest a six-month-old girl who lay on the floor as her grandmother tried, ineffectively, to brush away clouds of flies. "There is no food to give them and some of them don't even have clothes," one man said of the youngsters. "Here there is no school, nothing for them to do."

Navid Mourad, a state government official overseeing the centre, said they expected the families to be there for many weeks. "The water is not receding, it's going up," he said. "This has impacted very badly, especially on the children. Of the 1,939 people we have here, 948 are children. Some are suffering from disease and other problems."

More than half of all fatalities in natural disasters are children. Matthew Wingate of Save the Children said: "Children bear the brunt in a number of ways. Young children are many times more likely than adults to succumb to highly contagious and communicable diseases such as diarrhoea, vomiting, fever and measles – all of which are rife in the unsanitary conditions that result from a disaster such as the ongoing Pakistan floods.

"Children cannot go without food for as long as an adult ... Their emotional vulnerability can also be overlooked in the face of the overwhelming physical need for food, medicines and shelter," he added.

Mr Dil had suffered as a child in one of Pakistan's earlier crises. At the age of five or six he had contracted polio – a disease that still blights the country – and he was left with a right arm that can now do little more than rest on the steering wheel. The commerce student claimed his illness was the "will of God", though he accepted that if Pakistan devoted some of the $4bn (£2.5bn) it spends annually on defence to boosting its meagre public health budget, such problems could be solved.

What do people from outside think of Pakistan and all our problems, he demanded to know. What about our politicians? They were serious, reflective subjects, but nothing was going to deflate his mood. He had helped rescue more than 50 friends, stranded in these remote villages, and today he had managed to collect the remainder of his family.

Eventually his friend and his younger brother climbed from the backseat and started to push the small Daihatsu. They got their weight behind the car, and Mr Dil was convinced he could jump-start it. It seemed a challenge too far, but after a couple of false attempts, the engine kicked and started. The young man revved the engine while his family and friend climbed back in. Then they were gone, coursing through the expanse of surging water.

In order to donate to the Disasters Emergency Committee go to www.dec.org.uk or phone 0207 387 0200

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