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A flooded Pakistani town faces an uncertain future

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Weeks of unprecedented monsoon rains have left a third of Pakistan underwater, and that has left around half a million people homeless. In the northern town of Nowshera, authorities have hastily converted 25 colleges and boarding houses into shelters. NPR's Diaa Hadid paid a visit.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: We've come to a technical college that has been converted into a camp for Pakistanis who've been displaced by these floods. There are dozens of people crowded in front of one tiny window.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: They're trying to get the attention of government official Zar Ali Khan and his aides, who are ensconced in an admin office they've transformed into camp headquarters. We reach them by scrambling through a smashed window. One volunteer is stressed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We have to deal with such kind of people.

HADID: Look, they're desperate. They're doing their best. These are all people trying to register now, yeah?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: First we register them and then give them the packages.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: They get a mat to sit on. The government official, Khan, says they've registered 500 families in just three days. As he speaks, the man furiously jots down the details of new families. He can't work fast enough. People keep arriving, including one family who clip-clop in on their donkey cart.

(SOUNDBITE OF DONKEY HOOVES CLOPPING)

HADID: Crowds smush around an open-backed jeep, where a man hands out plastic bags filled with cooked rice. The jeep slowly trundles about the sprawling college complex. People bang on the side of the vehicle.

(CROSSTALK)

HADID: They jog to keep up. Elderly people fall behind. A man and a woman fight over a bag of rice, and it tears open.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: One woman, Zubaida Begum, scolds the jeep driver for causing chaos and for leaving women behind.

ZUBAIDA BEGUM: (Through interpreter) I want to ensure that women and girls getting food. It's hard for women here.

HADID: In this conservative area, it's frowned on for women to be in public, let alone press for their needs. And many can't even read or write, like Mubina. She works as a cleaner. Her 10-year-old son labors in a carpentry workshop.

MUBINA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Her hut was washed away over the weekend. It was so fast, Mubina collected the kids, their ID cards and scrammed. Her husband, who she says is an abusive drug addict, saved himself.

MUBINA: (Through interpreter) He ran off. He didn't even turn his neck around to see what happened to us.

HADID: Mubina is now staying in a tent with two other women and their children. It's a tarp hoisted up by a pole, and there's even a shortage of those across Pakistan because the floods have been so devastating. Her life right now is a grab bag of uncertainties. She doesn't know when she and her children will eat next. She doesn't know when they can use the toilet.

MUBINA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Mubina says there's only one toilet for females, and it's sometimes locked, so they're always holding it in. Her friend Laila, a 31-year-old mother of three, leans in and says, we don't have period pads either.

LAILA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: She says, "we're using our scarves."

Mubina and the other women say they don't know when they can leave the camp. If the government doesn't give them money, they can't rebuild. I asked them, are they worried that there'll be another flood? The women shrug. They've never heard of the climate change that is making these floods more frequent and more intense. They've also done very little to contribute to it. These women don't have cars. They rarely eat meat. And when I ask if they've ever been on an airplane, another woman in the tent, Nazia, burst out laughing.

NAZIA: (Through interpreter) I've never been on a plane, and I've never even seen an airport.

HADID: She says she can't imagine how those things could cause her house to flood. She says this has to be an act of God, and maybe God will help them now.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Nowshera.

(SOUNDBITE OF SADE SONG, "SOLDIER OF LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.