Here's my experience from the medical relief camp in the flood affected areas in district Layyah, Southern Punjab, Pakistan.
Special thanks to Gulzab Nawaz for helping with editing.
Day 1 (Thursday, 26 August, 10)
THE LAND OF THE PURE
There is always some comfort in seeing the slow and peaceful progression of life in the countryside. The lush and green fields of this land, Pakistan (literally: land of the pure), remind me of the simple hopes and aspirations held by the people who inhabit it. The different shades of green sooth my eyes as I continue my journey to Layyah, a district in the province of Punjab. Layyah, of course, has been hard hit by the recent Monsoon flooding. The Government of Pakistan’s Provincial and National Disaster Management Authorities have estimated that nearly 17.2 million people have been affected by the flooding, and approximately 10 million are in dire need of immediate humanitarian assistance.
It was a lazy Monday afternoon last week, I sat comfortably on the recliner at my house. Frustrated by my inability to study for the medical licensing exams. I turned on the t.v. Naturally, the default channel was a well renowned Pakistani news channel, watched avidly by my parents. Watching the devastation on tv repeatedly for days, made me think that I might use this time during the holy month of Ramadan to do something productive. "I cant study anyways" has always been a good excuse to do other things. I called up the airline and booked my seat for the following Friday. I was in Lahore in no time, after flying for more than 16 hours, I went straight to Allama Iqbal Medical College (the college I graduated from last year), and met with principal Dr Javed Akram, a notable philanthropist and one of the nicest teachers. The teaching staff of Allama Iqbal Medical College and its affiliate teaching hospital Jinnah Hospital were the first to respond to the flood crisis, sending in teams of medical doctors to flood affected areas such as Layyah, Jhang and Muzafargarh before any other organization. 25 teams had already rotated through different areas on five day rotations. They provided much needed medical relief to flood victims. Inspired by my colleagues and teachers work and most importantly by the words of my ideal, Dr Salman Ahmad (guitarist for Junoon, UN HIV/AIDS ambassador and the author of "Rock n Roll Jihad"), I knew what I had to do. And so here I am, sitting in the back of the Allama Iqbal Medical College minivan, speeding away with other doctors and support staff to the flooded areas. I am, where I want to be.
But I do not see any evidence of flooding just yet; instead I am greeted with sights of children flying kites, and men hard at work on canal-side wheat plantations. Cattle and livestock roam the streets at a cumbersome pace—eating whatever sort of vegetation they can set their eyes on. They still remain the most important asset to the villagers and losing them would be great loss for the fragile local economy. Ponds filled with water prompt up from time to time and date trees stand handsomely every few meters on the island that separates the motorway. The bright city lights have made me weary and systematic, and so I let myself go in the vast richness of this land.
Every now and then I let my eyes wander to land upon a lonely man sitting along the roadside, taking a break from his often long and hard labor. And I wonder to myself, what his life must be like? Does he find happiness? And if so, is he better off in his small village than those of us who have the freedom to roam the world?
The sunlight is diminishing and the clouds are becoming heavily constricted within the sky, and so of course, we must be nearing Faisalabad. I have never been there—but it is well known as the hub of materials manufacturing and as one of the most affluent cities in Pakistan. There’s not much to see, textile mills litter the street corners and then there’s the odd man in a Ferrari honking down a street filled with rickshaws and horse-drawn-carriages.
It is a few hours later when the effect of tylanol wears off and I wake up to a dreaded feeling of cold, I've been sick since yesterday.. I simply cannot take the bitter air of the A.C. anymore but I have to keep calm, as there are others who are also traveling alongside myself in the cramped minivan who are basking in the ambiance of cold AC air. I look outside, the greenery of central Punjab has been replaced with the endless dessert. We are very much nearing our destination. There are no birds in the sky; seldom, there are patches of subdued greens—which are inhabited by the people living alongside the motor way.
Our minivan’s driver, Nawaz, recklessly overtakes cars on the narrow road, which seems even too tight for a single car, and for the life of me, I am not sure at all how cars are managing to drive forth from the opposite direction. Cows and goats are replaced with desert animals (and at one point I spot a gang of school kids merrily playing cricket and being watched very intently by a lone spectator—a camel). It is hard to believe that even the dessert has been hit with the floods. And according to some of the locals that we had met on the way, it has been raining every day in these southern parts, a real testament to the unrelenting and changing weather pattern of the world.
We finally arrive at our rest house, which was once indeed, a rest house; around when the British used to rule over these parts. Now it looks more like an abandoned house which may collapse on itself any minute. A scary looking house erected in the middle of nowhere, paint worn off, water leaking from one side, stray dogs running about, a lonesome cow tied to a tree a few feet away, lush green fields on two sides, farms on one side, and a canal on the other. "Bhoot-bangla lug raha hay" [Looks haunted] , was Dr Tariq's first impression. That raised my eye brows momentarily. My mind travels back in time to the same time last year, the crisp bedsheets of the beautiful Hyat Regency in downtown Montréal for three days, or the Hilton Garden Inn in Times Square last month. I'm a long way from the comforts of the material world - but I am not dazed, this is what I chose for myself. We walk into the resthouse and the first room I see has a single bed, and is as dirty a room as I've ever seen in my life. The driver made no complaints putting his bags down and claiming it. Avoiding the other rooms, we go straight to the master-bedroom, which has one king-bed and an A.C. Doctor's, being of higher social stature, claim the room without even uttering a single word. It was just understood by all as to who will reside in this room for the next few days. Arrangements are made for comforters to be placed on the floors so all the doctors can relish in the cool air conditioned room, the dispensers and the nurses show little reluctance to this seggregation of classes according to job qualification. Such is life here. People are genetically predisposed to mental slavery for which they show no protest. Iqbal tried relentlessly to make us come out of this mental slavery and fight for our rights. I'm too tired and too sick for anything more, all I can do is collapse on the comforter laid down for me and other junior doctors on the floor. I pray that I recover from the flu bug so I can do my share of work to the best of my ability.