By RIAZ KHAN and SHERIN ZADA
Associated Press Writers
IMAM DHERI, Pakistan (AP) — This village in Pakistan’s troubled Swat Valley suffered through years of Taliban rule and months of battles between Islamist militants and the army. But for a man who has seen it all, that’s nothing compared to the last three days of flooding.
Pakistan’s impoverished northwest has been wracked by the worst floods in the country’s history — a disaster that has claimed 1,100 lives, wiped out whole villages and left families clinging to the tops of collapsed houses in the hope of being rescued.
The catastrophe also opened up a new front in the U.S. war against Islamist militants, with both groups competing to deliver emergency aid to a region under constant threat of the Taliban.
But for flood victims like Fazal Maula, a 30-year-old resident of Imam Dheri, it doesn’t matter who delivers the assistance — he just wants to know how he and his family are going to find their next meal and rebuild their lives.
"We saw destruction during the three years of the Taliban and then during their fight with the army. But the destruction we have seen in the last three days is much more," Maula told an Associated Press reporter who managed to reach the village on a makeshift boat Sunday.
The floods destroyed almost everything in Imam Dheri and the surrounding villages, including houses, shops, vehicles and crops. Residents have received no assistance from the government, and those who haven’t been able to flee by boat are running out of food, said Maula.
The army launched a major offensive against Taliban militants in the Swat Valley last spring, sparking a fight that caused widespread destruction and drove some 2 million people from their homes.
The government has said that rehabilitating the area is key to keeping out the militants, a goal that was already hampered by a shortage of funds and now will be much harder to accomplish because of the devastating floods, which have destroyed more than 14,000 houses and 22 schools in Swat.
The U.S. stepped in to help the government Sunday, promising $10 million in emergency aid. The high-profile gesture comes at a time when the Obama administration is trying to dampen anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and enlist the country’s support to turn around the Afghan war.
The U.S. also provided rescue boats, water filtration units, prefabricated steel bridges and thousands of packaged meals that Pakistani soldiers tossed from helicopters as flood victims scrambled to catch them.
"This is much needed stuff in the flood-affected areas and we need more of it from the international community," said Latifur Rehman, a disaster management official in Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa, the northwest province ravaged by the floods.
The U.S. provided similar emergency assistance after Pakistan experienced a catastrophic earthquake in 2005 that killed nearly 80,000 people. The aid briefly increased support for the U.S. in a country where anti-American sentiment is pervasive.
But feelings have since shifted, and only 17 percent of Pakistanis now have a favorable view of the U.S., according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. Conducted in April 2010, the survey has a margin of error of three percentage points.
The U.S. could be hoping to get a similar popularity boost from the emergency flood assistance. But like the earthquake relief effort, the U.S. must compete with aid groups run by Islamist militants who also use assistance to increase their support.
Representatives from a charity allegedly linked to the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group distributed food and offered medical services on Sunday to victims in the town of Charsada, one of the areas hit hardest by the floods.
"We are reaching people at their doorsteps and in the streets, especially women and children who are stuck in their homes," said an activist with the Falah-e-Insaniat charity who would identify himself only by his first name, Saqib.
With suspected ties to al-Qaida, Lashkar-e-Taiba has been blamed for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, that killed 166 people, and the U.S. military has said the group has stepped up activity in Afghanistan as well.
Pakistani militant groups often rail against government ineffectiveness as a way to build support, a message likely to resonate with many in the northwest who have criticized the official flood response.
"My son has drowned, but I don’t see the government taking care of us," said Sehar Ali Shah, standing in front of his half-submerged house in the city of Nowshera.
Some parents sought to save their children by carrying them on their shoulders as they waded through chest-high water fouled by the rotting carcasses of water buffalo.
Another flood victim, Hakimullah Khan, criticized the government for failing to help him find his wife and three missing children, who disappeared as water engulfed Charsada.
"The flood has devastated us all, and I don’t know where my family has gone," said Khan. "Water is all around, and there is no help in sight."
The military has deployed 30,000 army troops who helped rescue more than 20,000 people, said Adnan Khan, a government disaster management official in Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa.
However, rescuers have been unable to access certain areas and officials fear the death toll could increase beyond 1,100, he said.
More than 27,000 people in the province remained trapped and authorities said 43 military helicopters and 100 boats had been deployed to try to save them.
The rescue effort was aided by a slackening of the monsoon rains on Sunday. As floodwaters started to recede, officials began to understand the full scale of the disaster, which the U.N. estimated affected a million people nationwide.
"Aerial monitoring is being conducted, and it has shown that whole villages have washed away, animals have drowned and grain storages have washed away," said Rehman, the government disaster official. "The destruction is massive."
Shair Dad returned to his timber shop in Nowshera to find that most of his wood was lost in the floodwaters.
"I won’t be able to recover my losses for 10 years," he said.