Sohni 3: Life Inside a Flood Camp

This is the story about a young girl from the small village of Jhongal in Upper Sindh. She among the thousands from her village who was baldy effected by the floods in Pakistan, and hence having lost everything to water she and her family now live in a flood camp in Shikarpur, until life decides for them what they ought to do. Now as she shares her life with me and I feel like there couldn't have been a better way to look at the life of flood survivors in camps through her own eyes.
Sohni is a short series of blog posts which would bring forward the life of this girl to every reader and would be the window to what disasters struck the flood survivors after the major disaster of "floods in Pakistan".

Adjusting to a new world

Sober looking men in gray suits were the ones who ordered our family to live inside this “camp”. “They are the army”, Sajid my six year old brother whispered in my ear rather proudly. “They are going to take care of us”. And we were taken care of.  We were made to leave the Masjid-Mosque to go to a Boys school in Shikarpur. Even though I had never imagined a school to be as big as this, but I was seeing it finally, with clear open eyes. Big as a bunglow rich people live in, with so many rooms, stairs and toilets with water taps in them and doors that lock! And more importantly it has a big open-agan- ground without any dust, as its cemented. 

In fact all that was happening to us wasn’t anything that any of us has imagined. Four days of living in Masjid camp, the clean marble floored holy place of Allah, which was different from the Masjid in Jhongal where even girls came to read from their Siparas-Holy Quran- this was rather filled with men and boys. Huge crowds gathered when it was the time for Namaz. And those were the times when Amma with her angry-mother eyes search through the tiny room for me and my sisters, “Chori-Girl”- she would say, “don’t go out until its really necessary”, and we would sit quietly huddled in a corner waiting for the men to finish their namaz. I envied Sajid for being able to stroll around the whole place as if he owned it and came up every two hours to shriek on top of his lungs about what new he found about this beautiful place.  

School Camp was what I liked at the first sight, although I never expected so many people had their homes flooded as large number of families already made home of the place. I saw some girls washing clothes in small buckets and a few making rotis-round patties of bread- while children in every shape and size ran frantically about the ground chasing each other, laughing, not knowing and certainly not caring.

That morning of the fifth day after the floods destroyed our home, village and my dreams, with my potli- cloth basket- on top of my head, Amma holding my two little sisters and the two elders walking closely with her, Abba, who along with all others including Sajid on his shoulders entered this new world. My phuphis-Fathers sisters- and Chachi-Uncles wife- have become weak in the past days, they had been constantly crying about their houses and their belongings back in our village while Amma was the one to console them and ask them to eat. Amma was in charge once again, she had strolled off quickly scanning the area for possible spaces we could use and it turned out that 2 rooms were completely isolated but only had the school desks, black board and chalk in them. Women would use one of the rooms as it was decided and second one would be for men, including Tahir (my fiance) I was glad. 

We spread rilis-blankets- and put our stuff in a corner. Tiredly and sore I glanced around my new surroundings, I could see various girls glancing inside the room from the open windowsill, the shouts of children outside dissolved with this environment now and the fan above made a gut-gut-gut to join in the rhythm and I had my first slumbers in this new home. 

I was feeling really damp, hot and scratchy…I opened my eyes, the fan wasn’t moving anymore, flies buzzed close to my ears as if to annoy me and I saw Amma sitting near me fanning Sajid who was still asleep. It was mid afternoon yet; my sisters sat in a corner of the room murmuring to each other while phuphis and chachi slept on the floor without any rili underneath them. They found them hot in this warmth of the building. 

What is going on? was the first question in my mind, the heat was unbearable now and I was sweating so much that my dress clung on me damply making me feel uneasy and frustrated. Stomping my feet I walked out of the room, halted near the door when I saw two girls almost my age with dupatas-head scarves- clutched in their mouths and eyes trying not to glance at me, shyly walked past me. I later found out that they had their room close to ours.  

The floor of the hallway was wet, someone had just spilled water which mixed with dust falling on the cemented ground made it slippery, I started walking slowly dragging my feet without any chapel-shoes. Just close to the corner two huge machines stood near the wall, it had taps attached to it and a glass hung with a wire to its end. “Drinking water”! I thought gleefully and I stepped closer. Water was cold and refreshing, feeling really happy I drank two full glasses of water and suddenly felt the urge to go to the toilet. But how? And where? I rushed back to the room and saw Nasima (my second elder sister) still talking to my other sisters and shouted to come with me quickly as I had to go to the toilet. The search began soon and we found three small rooms, with wooden doors that had to be locked from the inside. I instantly had a feeling that I would be locked inside as soon I close the door and decided not to go, Naima demonstrated a closing of the door without being locked and asked me to experiment it but I still left it half open while used the toilet and two sisters stood on guard. 

Things started to become familiar for us finally, The wet floor wasn’t a problem, Sleep time wasn’t decided, anyone could sleep anytime, no one feared from being locked in the toilets, although I still was afraid as I felt that I would be killed in the worse smell, would be locked, or suffocate to death, so kept the door open and asked my sister to guard me.  We had soon found out that this was a two-story building, a huge number of families lived on the top level rooms, I wished we could too; it must have been so much fun to be above the ground! I sneaked up there sometimes when Amma Abba weren’t looking and strolled past the packed rooms where even three to four families lived together in one room, their newly washed cloths hung near the ceiling on a rope, and some had been able to bring a lot of their pots and pans which scattered around the place. Once I almost fell on my face hinged in one of the pots and a very thin girl holding her dupatta to her neck came running and took it away, I wasn’t going to steal it I was about to say, but she vanished in the crowd. 

One day while strolling along these rooms and using a stick as a musical instrument to slide up on the window jars of the walls I came across a pace of boys and rushed back to our room downstairs, they made faces and laughed behind me and I almost lost my balance down the stairs. 
Amma and my sisters also seemed to have found people to talk to and they were always speaking to someone down the hall, Sometimes I would find them crying and talking about their homes and villages and it would heartbrokenly remind me of the neem tree….the cow dung filled sky…there was nothing like my village Jhongal here, only babies were something I found similar. Cute little crying babies. I would run around across to the other side of this camp school to carry Majid, a 1 year old infant, or Sajjad, Yousif and Sidra. One day I noticed bumps on Majids head and after my asking, his mother merely said that it’s due to the heat. She is right we have three times electricity failures in Shikarpur and the close suffocating condition of people living together along with the dirty walls of the school room made it really hot, I started noticing the bumps on other little children as well and some burst with skin peeling off them. The mothers of these children used talcum powders on them to dry, they say it was good if the skin was peeling off, that means the bumps were going.  

Mother had stomachache one day; she kept changing sides lying down without any rili underneath her but still bolted with pain. It’s from the food, Chachis and Phuphis declared, but what about the food? I thought, I loved this food! I had never eaten anything spicy and delicious like this. I especially waited for the two times of meals that were provided. I knew Sajid and Naimat( my youngest sister) felt the same way too. But I had to believe my phuphis soon, almost all of us had these stomach pains, and we found out that many others had too. We tried to skip a few meals and prayed for something else to be provided to us to eat. Once in a while a rich looking man wearing black jacket trying to look kind, along with 4 other people who had huge boxes on top of their heads came to visit. They gave away milk in boxes! In the past days Amma like other women showed us angry eyes to suggest we don’t go near these men, but these days we rushed to have those milk boxes and drink to console our burning stomachs, Amma and my Sisters hid their boxes away to make tea. 

One Baba along with my uncles decided to visit our village, I waited all day for them to come back but they arrived next day, tired and sad. “Sohni” Abba called sadness visible in his voice and I hurried to give him water in a bowl that we had brought. He took it from my hands tiredly and started taking big gulps…I felt so sorry for him right then. Abba used to be the source of fright for all of us and there were times when we sat still unable to breath when he was around the house now he was in a condition where we could feel sorry for him, this thought made me even more sad and sorry.  “The whole village is under water” he told Amma, heartbrokenly while brushing his beard with his fingers, Amma could only give a moan to that, while sitting along the wall watching her fingers. She had given up hopes already to be in our home before eid (Muslim festival for celebrating after 30 days of Ramadan). 

Many people visited the camp daily, sometimes it was hard to even keep track and we could only see huge number of people coming and going out of the school. Whenever people with boxes arrived, we knew it was something to be distributed and hurried to get our share, girls kicked and shouted to make way, once I got a shove in my ribs and felt a wave of pain journey though my body. No one was polite when it was something to eat. Once trucks stood near the school, filled with stuff, baskets, blankets, water coolers, plastic rugs and even more. Everyone ran towards the huge gate to the trucks and as usual they were stopped by many men dressed in Pants and shirts who were doing their best trying to keep the crowds calm. In this mob I saw a few women draped in black burqas-veils-Crazy I thought, we are dying of heat and they are walking around wearing their burqas. They too were fighting their way to the trucks, but later I saw them take these goodies with them and walk out of the gate. 

Taking a bath was the worst in this camp, first we had to fill a bucket of water, pull it inside the tiny bathroom, close the huge door and bath in small chunks of water until suffocate from the heat. The headmasters who had made it their duty to walk around the school were always angry about everything, don’t use all the water! They would shout and mom would nod to us to make sure we understood, don’t peel off the paints! They growled and I didn’t understand when we did it, don’t make stains on the walls, what is this stain of black smoke?! Black smoke! he repeated shouting like a maniac until Amma and Chachis stood like helpless fools near the door unable to say anything as they were the ones making tea by burning wood. 

But then again it wasn’t only them, more them 20 more stains were to make this headmaster angry and I could laugh at his red face but was afraid to do so because what if he decides to kick us out of this school?! Village is still full of water as Abba had said. 

Where would we go?!

The first two episodes of Sohnis story are as under: 

Sohni 2: Floods Came in middle of the night

Sohni 1: My Small Village Jhongal