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Pakistan: Treacherous trek to deliver aid

Written by Save the Children’s reporting coordinator in Pakistan

The worst-affected areas of Swat are in the northern parts of the valley. For the past week, nine members of the Save the Children team have been distributing the food rations that have been delivered by helicopter by the World Food Programme.

Myself and the senior programme manager decided that we should travel over to Kalam to assist the team and help document and monitor the food distribution.

The only issue is that there are no helicopters available to transport aid workers, which meant if we wanted to get there, we would have to trek 50 kilometres to do so.

We set off at 0630 from Fateh Pur, a town 15 kilometres outside Saidu Sharif. From here the only road to Kalam had collapsed.

We reached the first town, Adyan, after crossing two hills. The entire shape of the city had changed – the floods created a river that went straight through the middle of town, completely destroying the main market.

Mud and dust was everywhere, as were huge boulders that the flood had carried right into town. A lot of people from the town had already left and moved to the southern areas of Swat, but there were still some people there, protecting their homes and property.

From Adyan we crossed a temporary bridge – two planks of wood – with the river 10 feet below us, flowing rapidly. When we had crossed the bridge, we saw that the road had collapsed and was 50 meters below where it used to be.

So on one side of us was 20-30 meters of mountain face and on the other side was the river. We were forced to walk with the river water up to our knees, hanging on to the rock face. The water was ice cold.

We finally reached a city, Bahrain, which used to be a big tourist destination with lots of hotels, restaurants, and beautiful river side cafes. I was there five years ago on holiday with  my family. The city is now unrecognisable.

It is like something has taken a huge pile of rocks and mud and thrown in all over the city. The main bazaar is completely destroyed. Three story hotels have tumbled down and the main road through the town was covered in 5 feet of mud.

Small shops and stalls are covered in mud and dust and rocks. Several of the main bridges that people used to commute from one side of the city to the other have been destroyed – some without any remnants at all.

But what was most amazing was that the river had completely changed course and was now running 20-30 meters further west from where it was.

We walked along the old river bed out of the city and into the mountains. From here, cars took us along a small stretch of road – about 8 kilometers, to where the road ended.

We were then forced to climb a couple of mountains on our right and walk through dense jungle with no sunlight. The only way to get through is via tight lanes and water canals used for irrigation. We walked through a number of mountainous villages and small farms.

The majority of the people living here haven’t moved. They are uphill from the river – but have been completely cut off from the rest of the world. Their livelihoods have been totally disrupted – there is no way they can sell their crops at the market.

Moving on, we walked for six kilometres in the mountains before we reached Toorwal, where for three hours we had small stretches of road interrupted by mountain – the road had been washed away by the flood water.

We came across a number of villages that had once been next to the river and had been completely destroyed. We met lots of people coming and going – some people, like us, travelling north with food rations.

We met children who had 20 kilos of food on their backs for their families. We also met villagers who’d had homes destroyed, heading south in search of help. To reach Mankyal, we had to cross a 20-meter gap between the road and mountain.

The bridge was a small tree trunk that the villagers had placed there to get over the river. This was very precarious and had a torrent of raging water running just under it. We had to crawl along. There was a line of people queuing up to get across.

We thought we were nearly there but found the road was destroyed again. We had to climb another two mountains, one of which was over 8,000 feet high, on a very narrow and steep track.

We met locals also going to Kalam who said there were cars going the last few kilometers. We were lucky because they had just started operating. We crossed a few more villages, farmland and jungle. Everyone we met was asking if we were bringing aid with us.

We met two young brothers, aged just 5 and 9, who told us about their experience. They had lost everything – their clothes, books, even their precious football- so I gave one of my shirts to them.

We then climbed down to where the road took us to Kalam. We had been walking for almost 12 hours – and we didn’t want to miss the jeeps driving to Kalam – which was another 17 kilometers.

I couldn’t feel my feet, my back hurt and I had no more strength.  We were so thankful when we saw the Jeeps parked a few kilometers further down.

By the time we got there, we realised they were actually waiting for the “two crazy outsiders” who were risking their lives coming here to help. It was nearing dusk and it had just starting to rain. Thankfully it hadn’t rained during our walk as there was always the fear of landslides and slipping.

The Jeep ride was about another hour – we had to go over more canals and broken roads – only just accessible by 4×4. Five years ago when I came to this area, there were hotels and restaurants, and people from all over Pakistan were here on holiday.

I can remember so vividly all the lights and noise everywhere. When we arrived, it was as if it was a ghost town, completely pitch black. I couldn’t believe it was Kalam. We met the team at 8.30 pm – so glad we had got here.

In Kalam, 90% of the main market, which provides a livelihood for so many people, was completely destroyed. It was unrecognisable. It looked like it might have 100 years ago: no cars – they had all washed away – no clean water supply, which was previously run by an electric pumping station, now destroyed.

The only means of getting across the river is by climbing into a cage that is then hoisted across the water using a pulley/rope system, one person at a time.

There is very little food here. The only way to get food in is by helicopter, and the major problem is that helicopters can’t come in when it’s raining. It’s monsoon season so rain is almost continuous.

Because of the bad weather, they couldn’t fly in today. We had planned for food distribution on a daily basis, but we can’t do anything if it rains. So far we have managed about two to three food distributions a week – far less than we had hoped.

Save the Children is the only humanitarian organisation working out here.

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