“I was milking a cow when I heard about the flood,” says Balaneeshta, an elderly widow living in mountainous northern Pakistan. “People from far away were whistling loudly to us and saying ‘run!’”
As the rains of summer 2010 poured down and the river near their homes surged higher, Balaneeshta and her neighbors ran up the mountains to safety. “Because of the mud, it was hard to climb,” she says. “Our feet sank deep. Trees and rocks were sliding down.” Nearby, her relative Nizamullah carried his disabled mother up the hill.
Balaneeshta, her neighbors, and her many children and grandchildren escaped. But the flood days were only the beginning of their problems. With homes completely washed away, villagers slept outside for days. They received tents, but not always enough of them.
“We stayed in a tent, 27 of us in one tent. We couldn’t sleep,” says Balaneeshta.
“There was no room even to lie down, only sit,” adds her relative Gulintaja.
Up on the mountain, “the winds were very strong,” says a small girl relative. “Sometimes we’d be sleeping and the tent would come down. We were worried it would hurt us. We’d come out and the men would reconstruct it. The tent would fall down again and again, all night. And sometimes stones would slide down.”
“We’d awaken with a start, thinking the flood had started again,” says a man named Ajmal. “There were mosquitoes—some children got malaria.” With no electricity or toilet facilities, large families—including the elderly and babies—were essentially camping for weeks.
But within days after the flood, staff from Catholic Relief Services came hiking dozens of miles through landslide rubble to find villagers like Balaneeshta. CRS asked families what they needed most and distributed supplies like buckets and blankets.
To the villagers’ astonishment, CRS staff also said they would build homeless families new houses. “When CRS wrote down our names, I was really happy,” says a woman named Samina. “I thought, ‘We can start over. I hoped our lives would start getting better.’”
Some residents were still skeptical. But when construction materials arrived, they started to believe. “I was so happy to see the building material,” says Balaneeshta. “I thought, “It’s really true!”
CRS built 2,000 insulated shelters in northern Pakistan alone, and thousands more in the flood-hit south. In the mountains, many of the houses were constructed before winter hit. But the work didn’t stop even when snow fell.
“130 shelter kits were transported by helicopter,” says Nasrullah Khan, CRS Head of Office in a town called Besham. “Every day, beneficiaries and staff shoveled the snow so the helicopter could land.”
The steep, rough terrain made home construction a special challenge. “There were some places where even donkeys couldn’t walk,” says Khan. “People carried the building materials on their shoulders.”
Now Balaneeshta sits in her snug one-room house, remembering where she was a year ago. “Today I am wearing the same clothes I wore when I ran from the flood,” she says, showing her worn shirt. “These are historical clothes!” Her lined face crinkles with laughter.
“We thank you a thousand times for this shelter,” says Gulintaja. “It’s a good place for us. We’re comfortable and peaceful. Because of the shelter, we feel like it’s our own.”
“If we didn’t have these houses, we might have had to leave this area. In winter, we would have been totally miserable,” says a neighbor named Muhammad Nasr. “Maybe our children would have died from the cold. We’re so thankful. We pray for you and all the people who helped
His friend Ahmad Nasr agrees. “I am thankful to the people of the USA for helping us during a terrible time.”
In her home, Balaneeshta bounces a grandchild born in a CRS shelter. Floods and other calamities haven’t dampened her good spirits. “I can’t speak in your language,” she says, “but I pray for you.”
Laura Sheahen was, until recently, CRS’ regional information officer for Asia. She has moved to CRS partner Caritas Internationalis. We thank her for her years of service and shall miss her insightful and evocative writing.
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