A Flood in the Valley

08/24/2010 12:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One year ago the Pakistani military launched an offensive to drive Taliban militants from Pakistan's Swat Valley. More than two million people fled the fighting, provoking a massive humanitarian crisis. Now, the worst floods in Pakistan's history have created even greater destruction and displacement.

I am travelling with a team of aid workers from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) who are helping to clear and pave 20 kilometers of dirt track south of Kahlan, a village that has been cut off from the outside world since flood waters submerged all roads in the area.

As we set off from Mingora, Swat's largest city, the signs of devastation are everywhere. Concrete bridges have toppled into the fast-flowing and swollen Swat River while buildings that were inundated when the river crested have been reduced to piles of cracked concrete and twisted metal bars. The simple mud-hut dwellings that are home to most people in this region have simply disappeared, swept away by the ferocious flood waters.

On the way out of Mingora we pass Green Square, an intersection crowded with donkey carts and motorcycle rickshaws. Before the Taliban were driven out, this square was used by the militants to stage executions. Almost every day, a Pakistani IRC staff member who preferred not to be identified, tells me, the decapitated bodies of those who ran afoul of Taliban justice were put on display as a warning to others.

We pass near the bombed-out ruins of a school that was destroyed by the Taliban as part of their campaign to stop the education of girls. Swat is still a dangerous place. Few Westerners travel here and tensions remain high. Soldiers at checkpoints, protected by sandbagged machinegun positions, stop vehicles along the way. Men, children and women clad in burkhas are searched for weapons and explosives.

Peter Biro - Swat Valley

After a bone-jarring drive of some two hours the main road abruptly ends, the asphalt swallowed by a muddy torrent of water. From here, my colleagues and I must walk.

Sitting in the grass under a peach tree I strike up a conversation with Amjad Ali, 20, who has trekked three hours from his hometown of Madyan to pick up clothing donated by the local community.

"I lost my house and my business," he says, half-shouting to make his voice heard over the whirr of low-flying Pakistani and U.S. military helicopters crisscrossing the valley in their quest to deliver aid. "Everything was taken by the river. I don't know what to do now."

Like so many in Swat, this is the second disaster to strike Ali in little over a year. He had already been forced to turn over his fish farming business to the Taliban when they arrived in the area in 2008.

"We had trout ponds," Ali says. "The Taliban said that if we didn't give them our fish they would kill us. Eventually, they murdered two of my relatives. We decided to flee in May 2009."

Ali and his family ended up in a hot and overcrowded camp near the city of Mardan, 200 kilometers south. When the Pakistani army operation against the Taliban was declared over three months later, Ali and his family were able to return home.

"Our village was completely destroyed," Ali recalls. "Houses had collapsed, shops had been looted."

Shortly afterward, the IRC arrived to help the people of Madyan. Aid workers repaired war-damaged water systems and distributed blankets, cooking ware and other relief supplies. Over the last year the IRC has offered similar assistance to over 200 villages in Swat and elsewhere. Slowly, life returned to normal. Then the floods came.

"Twenty-one members of my family are homeless," Ali says, shaking his head. "I cannot stop thinking about all the trouble we have had recently. Sometimes I think it's a bad dream."