A Spirit Of Survival Amid Devastating Pakistan Floods

Local residents travel down a flooded road in the hard-hit district of Nowshera in Pakistan. i i

hide captionLocal 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 the hard-hit district of Nowshera in Pakistan.

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

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

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.

Siraj Begum found shelter in a school crammed with some 200 families. i i

hide captionSiraj Begum managed to survive Pakistan's deadliest floods on record. Her entire village of Mohib Banda was submerged, and she found shelter in a school crammed with 200 families.

Julie McCarthy/NPR
Siraj Begum found shelter in a school crammed with some 200 families.

Siraj Begum managed to survive Pakistan's deadliest floods on record. Her entire village of Mohib Banda was submerged, and she found shelter in a school crammed with 200 families.

Julie McCarthy/NPR

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.

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."

  • An aerial view shows the flooded Kharo Chan village in Pakistan's Sindh province on Aug. 25. The United Nations has described the widespread flooding in Pakistan as unprecedented, with more than one-third of the nation underwater. Officials say as many as 20 million people have been affected during Pakistan's worst flooding in 80 years.
    Hide caption
    An aerial view shows the flooded Kharo Chan village in Pakistan's Sindh province on Aug. 25. The United Nations has described the widespread flooding in Pakistan as unprecedented, with more than one-third of the nation underwater. Officials say as many as 20 million people have been affected during Pakistan's worst flooding in 80 years.
    Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty Images
  • Pakistanis displaced by floods take shelter in temporary tents made with charpoys (bedsteads) near a makeshift camp in Baseera in Punjab province on Aug. 26. The United Nations warned that 800,000 people in desperate need of aid had been cut off by the deluge across the country and appealed for more helicopters to deliver supplies to those people reachable only by air.
    Hide caption
    Pakistanis displaced by floods take shelter in temporary tents made with charpoys (bedsteads) near a makeshift camp in Baseera in Punjab province on Aug. 26. The United Nations warned that 800,000 people in desperate need of aid had been cut off by the deluge across the country and appealed for more helicopters to deliver supplies to those people reachable only by air.
    Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
  • A boy and other displaced villagers plead for relief rations as a soldier waves a stick in an attempt to maintain order in the Sultan Colony army flood relief camp on Aug. 25. Pakistan's agricultural heartland has been devastated, with rice, corn and wheat crops destroyed by floods.
    Hide caption
    A boy and other displaced villagers plead for relief rations as a soldier waves a stick in an attempt to maintain order in the Sultan Colony army flood relief camp on Aug. 25. Pakistan's agricultural heartland has been devastated, with rice, corn and wheat crops destroyed by floods.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • Suffering from high fever and spasms, Allah Detta is carried by soldiers as he is rushed to receive medical treatment in the Sultan Colony army flood relief camp. Military and aid organizations are struggling to cope with the scale of the disaster, in which more than 1,600 people have died and millions have been displaced.
    Hide caption
    Suffering from high fever and spasms, Allah Detta is carried by soldiers as he is rushed to receive medical treatment in the Sultan Colony army flood relief camp. Military and aid organizations are struggling to cope with the scale of the disaster, in which more than 1,600 people have died and millions have been displaced.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • A boy carries water through a flooded yard in the village of Vasandawali in Punjab. The United Nations has appealed for $460 million to deal with the immediate aftermath of the floods, but has warned that billions will be required in the long term, with villages, businesses, crops and infrastructure wiped out.
    Hide caption
    A boy carries water through a flooded yard in the village of Vasandawali in Punjab. The United Nations has appealed for $460 million to deal with the immediate aftermath of the floods, but has warned that billions will be required in the long term, with villages, businesses, crops and infrastructure wiped out.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • A man helps his wife cross a river in Kasbag Gujarat. The United Nations estimates that 4.6 million people in Pakistan are still without shelter.
    Hide caption
    A man helps his wife cross a river in Kasbag Gujarat. The United Nations estimates that 4.6 million people in Pakistan are still without shelter.
    Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images
  • Yakub, 8, lies next to his mother Aug. 22 at a makeshift hospital in Muzaffargarh in Punjab, where he's receiving treatment for diarrhea. The U.N. warned that up to 3.5 million children are at risk from water-borne diseases and feared a "second wave" of deaths from disease after cholera was confirmed in some patients.
    Hide caption
    Yakub, 8, lies next to his mother Aug. 22 at a makeshift hospital in Muzaffargarh in Punjab, where he's receiving treatment for diarrhea. The U.N. warned that up to 3.5 million children are at risk from water-borne diseases and feared a "second wave" of deaths from disease after cholera was confirmed in some patients.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • Flood victims fight for relief bags distributed by soldiers in Nowshera on Aug. 20. U.N. agencies stepped up calls for donors to deliver on their pledges for Pakistan to prevent what U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon called a "slow-motion tsunami" from wreaking further catastrophe.
    Hide caption
    Flood victims fight for relief bags distributed by soldiers in Nowshera on Aug. 20. U.N. agencies stepped up calls for donors to deliver on their pledges for Pakistan to prevent what U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon called a "slow-motion tsunami" from wreaking further catastrophe.
    A. Majeed/AFP/Getty Images
  • Wind from a Pakistani navy helicopter blows furniture into the water as a man stands on top of his roof during an emergency aid distribution near Bachel in Sindh Province, southern Pakistan.The U.N. said the massive floods have eclipsed the scale of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
    Hide caption
    Wind from a Pakistani navy helicopter blows furniture into the water as a man stands on top of his roof during an emergency aid distribution near Bachel in Sindh Province, southern Pakistan.The U.N. said the massive floods have eclipsed the scale of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
    Kevin Frayer/AP
  • A flood survivor sleeps on a hammock Aug. 13 in Shah Jamal village.
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    A flood survivor sleeps on a hammock Aug. 13 in Shah Jamal village.
    Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
  • U.S. Chinook helicopters carrying flood survivors arrive Aug. 9 in Khwazakhela in the Swat Valley. As anger mounts among survivors, the Pakistani government and U.N. officials have appealed for more urgent relief efforts.
    Hide caption
    U.S. Chinook helicopters carrying flood survivors arrive Aug. 9 in Khwazakhela in the Swat Valley. As anger mounts among survivors, the Pakistani government and U.N. officials have appealed for more urgent relief efforts.
    Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images
  • Dried mud surrounds cars Aug. 5 in Nowshera.
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    Dried mud surrounds cars Aug. 5 in Nowshera.
    Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images
  • Onlookers perched on a damaged bridge watch a man cross a river by rope Aug. 3 in Swat Valley's Chakdara.
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    Onlookers perched on a damaged bridge watch a man cross a river by rope Aug. 3 in Swat Valley's Chakdara.
    AFP/Getty Images
  • Residents grab water bottles dropped from a Pakistani air force helicopter Aug. 2 in Nowshera, where thousands were affected by the floods.
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    Residents grab water bottles dropped from a Pakistani air force helicopter Aug. 2 in Nowshera, where thousands were affected by the floods.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • Bibi Gul (center) sits with her family in a school transformed into a camp for displaced people on the outskirts of Nowshera. The monsoon swallowed up Gul's house and two of her children. With no news of her son and daughter days later, she is distraught.
    Hide caption
    Bibi Gul (center) sits with her family in a school transformed into a camp for displaced people on the outskirts of Nowshera. The monsoon swallowed up Gul's house and two of her children. With no news of her son and daughter days later, she is distraught.
    Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images
  • A boy takes a moment to rest after salvaging belongings from his destroyed home in Pabbi.
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    A boy takes a moment to rest after salvaging belongings from his destroyed home in Pabbi.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
  • A boy makes his way along a flooded pathway in Pabbi.
    Hide caption
    A boy makes his way along a flooded pathway in Pabbi.
    Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

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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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