Behind the photograph: the human face of Pakistan’s deadly flood
It was an image that conveyed the human cost of the Pakistani floods – and the failure to deliver aid to those affected – more powerfully than any statistic: four young children lying on a filthy patchwork quilt, one of them sucking on an empty yellow bottle, all of them covered by flies.
The photograph by Associated Press’s Mohammad Sajjad went around the world and featured in the Guardian’s Eyewitness slot last week. The Guardian identified the child with the bottle as two-year-old Reza Khan and tracked him down to a makeshift camp at a roadside in Azakhel, some 19 miles from Peshawar, the capital of the insurgency-plagued province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, bordering Afghanistan.
The camp is a hotchpotch of about two dozen tents donated by various aid organisations, but it is run by none. Its residents must fend for themselves, and rely on the charity of passersby. There are 19 families here, all of them Afghan refugees: people who were displaced once by conflict in their homeland have now been displaced again by the month-long deluge.
Reza’s family is from Butkhak, near the Afghan capital, Kabul. His father fled the area as a young boy, some 30 years ago, to escape the cycle of foreign occupation and internecine battles plaguing his homeland.
When we found him, Reza was in a tent with his mother, Fatima, who, like most Afghans, has only one name, and six of his seven siblings, all huddled on a blue blanket extended over the muddy floor. He was still clutching the same bottle. It was still empty.
Fatima tried to calm the boy, who cries in a constant, low whimper, as well as his twin brother, Mahmoud. She covered three of her other children – she has eight, all under the age of nine – with a dirty mosquito net somebody in a passing car gave her, but it has several gaping holes. Her eldest child, a nine-year-old girl called Sayma, is mute and seems dissociated from her surroundings. Her green eyes stare blankly ahead, seemingly oblivious to her brothers’ wails. Flies carpet the few blankets arranged on the floor, and swarm all over the children. There is precious little in the tent – one cooking pot, a few cushions and two or three items of children’s clothing. The stench of human and animal waste is overwhelming in the hot, humid air. There is no sanitation, just shallow, open ditches of raw sewage that attract flies and mosquitoes.
“They have had nothing to eat today. I have no food,” Fatima says as she tries to swat the flies away from her children with a bamboo fan. “He’s crying with hunger,” she says, pointing to Reza. “It’s been a month since he had any milk.”