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Essay: Scenes from a Karachi refugee camp

In the wake of Pakistan's devastating floods, a refugee crisis swells.

Pakistan flood victims
Flood victims line up for food at a tented camp on Aug. 21 in Pakistan. The army and aid organizations are struggling to cope with the scale of the disaster that has displaced millions. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

KARACHI, Pakistan — Although I am a denizen of Karachi, I hadn’t been to Gulshan-e-Maymar, a canton of the vast city off the Super Highway. It took me about two hours to get there. On the way, I picked up and dropped off a Pathan character cradling a CNG canister like an infant and two chatty Bengali women who told me I had taken in the scenic route.

Flat, dusty neighborhoods gave way to sudden uninhabited high-rises recently constructed by the Directorate of Labor. The refugee camp that I had come to visit was housed in a new complex called Asif Apartments rumored to be within the purview of the local land mafia.

There was a bustle outside. A stall festooned with flags representing a regional political party was ensconced on the side of the road adjacent to several fruit stalls; there was a contingent of police, and a contingent of rickshaws.

Inside, in an area about the size of a New York City block, there was an inchoate ecosystem. Refugees escaping the floods in interior Sind, some from as far as Shikarpur, had converged on the “camp” in the last two or three days. Most had learned of it by word of mouth or through notices in the newspapers. There are 940 units in the pastel, four storied, gated apartment complex. There are more than 7,000 refugees.

Pakistan’s freak floods, brought about by heavy rains that began in July, have affected more than 20 million people. More than 1,600 have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. Many have drifted to Karachi.

When I asked the man in charge, a limber official from the provincial revenue department, about the general state of affairs, he put on a brave face. He rattled off the hospitals, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and trusts involved in the effort. Akheel Dheddy, one of Karachi’s most prosperous stockbrokers, is contributing. A refugee praised the endeavors of the Sunni Tehreek, a moderate, Barelvi political outfit. Then, of course, there is the Edhi Foundation.

Named after its diminutive Memon founder who was at one time a contender for the Nobel Peace Prize, the Edhi Foundation is a massive, private social welfare organization that runs hospitals, orphanages, animal shelters, public kitchens and the largest ambulance service in the city. Their man on the ground was named Sardar. I was told that that there were 46 ambulances dispatching the sick as well as shuttling doctors back and forth from area hospitals. In the last week, Sardar told me, he had been attending to three different camps. He hadn’t slept in days.

Adjacent to the Edhi clinic was another clinic set up by the city police. In the first hour that I was there, the clinic was an empty room furnished with a bed, chair and desk. When I returned from my tour of the camp, the clinic was fully functioning. The doctor diagnosed a pretty 9- or 10-year-old complaining of blisters on her nose and head. An orderly dispensary was set up on tables in front. The patient was handed a bottle containing pink liquid, which she displayed to her friends.

There were many children wandering around in twos and threes, threes and fours, as if attending a country fair. There was, at once, an air of festivity and gravity at the Asif Apartments. Politicians would periodically arrive in cars with tinted glass, trailed by an entourage and television cameras. Refugees would gather around. They raptly observed a lithe young lady politician make hurried rounds of the environs. When a mustached politico later distributed bottled water down the lane, however, there was a small riot. A mob gathered around the bearded, bespectacled man sporting a skullcap. There was pushing and shoving and swiping. When the water finished, the mob quietly dispersed.

But a 50-something refugee named Rasool Baksh, who was unable to secure a bottle, complained loudly: “It is very disorganized. What can I do? What can we do?” Insisting on taking down my number, he asked, “Will you do something?”

A similar episode recurred later. A truck marked CDGK (City District Government of Karachi) arrived bearing large bags. The bags would have contained an assortment of items: tea, biscuits, rice, sugar, salt. They were also organizing a water-purifying agent that would be distributed with multicolored buckets. A mob gathered expectantly. In the nick of time, however, the police decided that the bags would be distributed individually to each apartment. It was a sensible decision.

One felt that there was improvisation and creativity at play as well as some regular confusion. The revenue official assured me that the water tanks that served the apartments had been properly cleaned. The apartments, however, lacked water. What good, then, is a clean tank?

By the evening, however, there were some encouraging indications. The ad hoc food rations, previously supplied by various organizations including the Agha Khan University Hospital in discrete amounts, had been replaced by munificent portions provided by the Saylani Welfare Trust. The distribution mechanism had manifestly improved. And although I was told by refugees that “agents” of the land mafia were among them, the police had mostly managed to clear the area of the menace for the time being.

If things continue to come together, there will be some promise for the refugees at the Asif Apartments. If nothing else, several thousand will be able to tide over the duration of the floods in relative peace.

If not, there will be profound chaos. 

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/pakistan/100822/karachi-refugee-camp-floods