Pakistan floods: Men trek 20 miles from cut-off town to get food for their stranded families

·6-min read

The journey north up the Swat Valley in Pakistan is a lesson in just how overwhelming the power of a natural disaster like this can be.  

Whole villages are swept away, towns are cut in half, a hydroelectric power station is overwhelmed and smashed and roads and bridges along the way are destroyed.

Like other disasters, even though the rains that brought this destruction have stopped for now, the disaster and its consequences have not.

Over a week on, the suffering of people who survived is growing by the day.

The aid is desperately needed, and the donors are well-intended, but the chaos caused by its arrival can be disturbing to watch.

Crowds of men await relief trucks to arrive at ad hoc distribution points.

Without police control, we saw hundreds of men overwhelm one of these trucks.

Ignoring the delivery men, wielding thick hose pipes, they clambered on board, grabbing anything and everything inside.

A little further north, we entered the town of Bahrain, a major tourist destination on the banks of the river Swat.

It's now split in two; a torrent of water surges through the town centre, with its main bridge washed away.

The southern part of the town remains connected to the rest of the Swat Valley, so there are supplies of food.

People brave rickety planks over fast-flowing water

Everything to the north is cut off.

Across the waters, they've constructed makeshift rickety bridges - one no more than a single plank wide - and, more precarious, cable trolleys are strung across the flood-created ravine by wire.

People who live here criss-cross the fast-flowing waters, ferrying supplies to the homes untouched by the flood.

All homes and businesses on the old river front have either been washed away or are catastrophically damaged.

For many who live here, life is difficult but manageable.

Thirty-year-old Imran Khan, whose family owns a hotel, says he found higher ground before the centre of town was hit, and that he and many others were shocked by the ferocity of the water.

"It was so, so, so, so dangerous, we were so afraid when it came and flowed, it was a huge amount of water coming," he says.

He adds that people are getting anxious and angry because aid is taking so long to trickle in.

"People are cut off because bridges are washed away by the flood, but, alhamdulillah, local people help each other a little bit, but the relief is not enough for us, we need a lot of food items and medicines and such more items for homes, shelters, etc, that would be a little bit good for us…"

200,000 stranded in cut-off town

Bahrain is important because it is now the gateway to the north of Swat, to the major town of Kalam, and the villages that lie beyond.

As many as 200,000 people are stranded there and they are totally cut off.

As we filmed, we noticed men carrying very heavy looking sacks, hundreds of them all heading in one direction, most alone, some with their families.

Clambering over rocks and travelling fast, determined but exhausted.

People explained to us that the men had come from the Kalam Valley and beyond by foot.

Scaling high mountain passes and dangerous tracks, their journeys took between six and nine hours one way as it's 36km (22 miles) to the valley.

They simply have no choice but to undertake this gruelling journey as they all have families at home, waiting for food.

Pakistan Army helicopters are attempting to drop aid in the valley, but with 200,000 people in need, what they can supply is a drop in the ocean.

The journey north begins at a wooden plank bridge that groans under the weight of the men as they stream across.

At either end, stewards try to control the flow for fear the bridge will collapse.

'It's a very challenging walk, you have to climb up hilltops and through mountains'

We met Khalid, a red baseball cap sheltering his face from the blistering sun, carrying lentils, flour, oil, and other food supplies, in a large rucksack.

He was heading back to his wife, children, mother, and father.

"We are planning to travel another 36km to Kalam Valley… it will take me at least six hours," he explained, wiping the sweat from his face.

"It is a very difficult walk, you can see I am already all sweaty, I'm carrying this heavy load and the path is not good, it's a very challenging walk because you have to climb up hilltops and through the mountains."

The destruction in Bahrain is significant, many buildings have been washed away, but even those still upright should probably be condemned.

They stand precariously above the floodwaters but most were engulfed up to three storeys and all will have had their foundations damaged as the water swept through.

On the newly deposited rocks and enormous boulders that crashed through the town, women do their washing and put it out to dry.

100-year-old couple have never seen anything like this

In one building, its front fascia broken away, Shamshaya is surrounded by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

She is 105 years old, frail but with an inner strength.

She has seen a lot through her long life in the Swat Valley, but says life has changed here - and not necessarily for the good.

"The weather has changed, it was very good in the past, the climate was good and people were happy even though it was a simple life, now we have more infrastructure but everything has changed for us, the weather has changed everything," she says, clutching her blue prayer beads.

Shamshaya's husband, centenarian Chari Gul, adds: "This is a disaster, the flood destroyed everything.

"I am 115 to 120 years old, but I haven't seen floods like this in my entire lifetime.

"They are cutting the forests, that's why the weather is changing - and now we have more rain, and the weather is getting warmer."

The real priority here now is to redirect the river and to build bridges and repair the roads heading north as almost everything beyond this town is destroyed.

Diggers lift boulders and drop them into the water, trying to create barriers to the flow; time really is of the essence if people to the north are to get any relief.

Neither faith nor resolve can be doubted in Pakistan, but this is overwhelming, and they desperately need help.