Aid workers are on alert in Pakistan amid reports of deadly Taliban attacks against foreigners helping with flood relief in the country. Kumar Periasamy serves as the director for International Operations and Programs at Operation Blessing International. The following is the Singapore native's firsthand account of the situation in the Taliban-oppressed region.
As I entered the waiting area before boarding the flight to Lahore, I realized I was already in Pakistan. The people, their dress, the language, their heavy carry-on baggage, massive duty free items, etc, etc, -- this is it -- welcome to another world.
As the flight took off, the first announcement was, "It is 4:15 a.m. Dubai time. We have only 15 more minutes before fasting begins." The cabin crew was working hard to make sure all got their meals on time. I too, was treated as one fasting.
At 4:30 a.m., "Fasting has started. No serving of food," said the cabin crew supervisor. The rest of the flight, nothing was served. Although I needed a glass of water, I had to be sensitive to my neighbor, not to tempt him or make him upset that I was not observing Ramadan.
Going through immigration was not that bad, but again the question was asked.
"So, you are Indian background?" inquired the officer.
"Yes, and I was born and raised in Singapore," I answered. She flipped through the pages of my passport till another officer interrupted her. She stamped my passport and said, "Next."
Customs is always a hassle if you are a Pakistani, and I looked like one. My camera bag went through the X-Ray, and the customs officer alerted another colleague of his to check my bag. He asked me why I was carrying five cell phones.
"Five, no way," but he was trying hard to find the five. I had all kinds of stuff in my camera bag which was shaped like a cell phone, and he began to ask me questions and at this point I switched my language to English, "Sir I don't speak Urdu." It worked, "Okay you can go." It was that simple.
It was humid and hot as I came out of the airport. Everyone wanted to help. Everyone was offering a taxi service." Naye Charyeya (I don't need)," I spoke in Urdu and was able to get myself out of it. But always there is a persistent one wanting to push the luggage trolley.
I could have brushed him aside, but I realized that I could be the only one today who would have given him some extra rupees (Pakistan currency) to feed his family. It is a hard life for these men trying to just earn few rupees. With a large family at home, fasting all day, a little extra cash would bring some joy to the family.
Since it was Saturday morning, the streets were quiet. I was surprised to see donkey carts on the road. A few new buildings had come up here and there but over all I felt nothing much has changed in Pakistan. I asked my host how are things in Pakistan. He said "Things have actually gotten worse."
Just then I got an e-mail from my contacts in Peshawar saying not to travel today to Peshawar since the Taliban and the army was engaged in a fight. I talked to our partner Humedica and they told me they could not leave the house either.
That changed my plans and led me to travel to Sukkur, Southern Pakistan, where the flood situation had gotten worse. Humedica will be packing their stuff and will be moving to Sukkur in the next few days.
I went to the local store to get a SIM card and exchange money to local currency. I was surprised by the number of security measures placed everywhere - security at the front gate, at the back, the side and security camera too. I had not seen this during the years I lived in Pakistan.
I turned to my host and asked him about a suicide bombing that killed the father of a friend, and with a smile he asked me "Which one? Almost there is one everyday. It is hard to keep track of it. You need to be specific." I did not know what to say.
By this time I was going through jetlag, took a short nap, and visited some friends. At midnight, we started the road journey towards Sukkur. I was not sure what to expect during this 14-hour drive. Pakistanis drive like a maniac, and any accident would be fatal. I know this, because I had seen way too many fatal accidents during my 3-year stay in Peshawar, 1984 - 1986. My host in Lahore rented a car with a driver. He also gave me couple of his colleagues to travel with me. I felt very safe at this point. Overall, the road was not that bad, driver was good and alert.
Because of pollution and to save on gas, most cars in Pakistan run both on gasoline and CNG (Compressed Natural Gas). All the way to Sukkur we drove on CNG gas. The gasoline was kept for emergency. We drove 700 miles and the cost of CNG was only $30.
As we crossed into Sukkur, I felt for the first time that this place was about 20 years behind. The mode of transportation included crowded vans, auto rickshaws (three wheelers), horse carriages and donkey carts. The streets were narrow and crowded. One had to a have a good eye to drive these crowded streets.
We were greeted by children at the first relief camp. These kids were dirty, flies on their faces. I mean literally they had not taken a bath in days. Soon the man and women came around just asking for food and medicines. They were desperate for help. Just as we left the camp, one man came with his child and said, "Please give us bread."
Just before I left for Pakistan I was studying the Pakistan flag. The 3/4 of green color on the flag means that the majority of the people are Muslims, and the 1/3 of the white color means the minorities. The minorities are tribes, Hindus, and Christians. The known fact is that the minorities in many ways are discriminated against. These neglected camps belong to the minorities. I do not want to go in detail, but the church where I had dinner tonight was burned down by extremists four years ago. The pastor's wife narrated what happened, and I felt chills in my bones.
Well, let me get some sleep. It is 4:30 a.m., and I have an early start in the morning. God bless.