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A Spirit Of Survival Amid Devastating Pakistan Floods

Local residents travel down a flooded road in in the hard-hit district of Nowshera in northwest Pakistan.
Daniel Berehulak
Getty Images
Local residents travel down a flooded road in in the hard-hit district of Nowshera in northwest Pakistan.

The flooding that left a trail of destruction in northwestern Pakistan is now sweeping south through the Punjab, destroying crops and threatening more lives. But even in the face of calamity, there is also the spirit of survival.

Nearly 155,000 homes in the northwest alone have been damaged or simply swept away in a stunning show of nature's force. As the floodwaters recede, many villagers have been forced to claw through mud to retrieve what is left of their belongings.

There are harrowing tales of loss and of people marching through neck-deep, snake-filled waters with babies and bundles balanced on their heads, but the story of one woman embodies what so many have endured.


Siraj Begum managed to escape the rising water that submerged her entire village of Mohib Banda. The mother of eight found shelter in a private school crammed with 200 families in the town of Pabbi in the hard-hit district of Nowshera. As she describes how she survived, swarms of her grandchildren press in to listen as if it were a campfire ghost story.

The water started coming around 9 or 10 a.m., just as her family was having breakfast, Siraj explains in her native Pashtun. Before long, it had reached the ceiling, so she ran up to the roof. She stayed there for three days, along with six or seven members of her family, waiting for help.

We cry and laugh both. But we laugh because God saved us from death.

An army helicopter buzzed past them day after day but -- it sounds almost comical -- Siraj says that their fortunes changed only after they figured out how to flag it down.

"Someone told us, 'You have to wave your sheet and your shawls at the chopper,' and when we did, they finally dropped some water, juice and biscuits," she says.

At a time when thousands are directing anger at the government's failure to reach them in their hour of need, Siraj blames herself for not being plucked to safety earlier. She may have lost everything, but not her self-deprecation -- or her wit.


"The reason we were rescued so late," she laughs, "is because I was waving and using hand signals that the pilot just didn't understand."

Despite the widespread fury at the government shared by many in the flood-affected areas, Siraj seems philosophical.

"We cry and laugh both. But we laugh because God saved us from death," she says.

But there is also fire within this white-haired, toothless grandmother. She joined a protest that blocked the main road in a bid to get the government to clear her village, where she says the stench of dead animals was choking.

"All the cattle and livestock in our village have been killed in the flood, all hens and roosters are dead," she says. "But the carcasses are now being removed because we protested."

In the school where Siraj and her family have found refuge, women wash their clothes on the floor, and doctors tend to countless cases of skin infection. She inhabits a single classroom with 25 other people in conditions she could not have imagined even a week ago.

"We can't sleep here," she says. "How can you sleep without bedding or quilts? We just lie on the floor, up all night."

But when the morning comes, amid the calamity around her, Siraj is more likely than not to find something to cheer her. She will need it -- more rains are forecast.

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