Gul Nar’s new home is a canvas tent on the median of the Peshawar-Islamabad expressway. To get to the grassy shoulder where they can have room to play, her two boys dart across three lanes of 60 mph traffic.
Her tent is one of hundreds along the dirt median of the M-1 where victims of Pakistan’s catastrophic flooding have taken refuge. They’ve decided that despite the danger and the din of incessant traffic just a few feet away, the expressway is their best bet.
Why? Because every once in a while, a car stops with a handout: a bag of rice, a carton of milk, a handful of dates, a small wad of cash.
“We had no choice but to come here,” says Nar, 30. “Yes, we know it’s dangerous. But the government hasn’t given us any help, so we survive on what people in passing cars give us. Sometimes one car stops; sometimes no one stops all day.”
The tents form a chain of misery that extends 27 miles, from the Charsadda interchange to the ramps that lead to Peshawar. The 15-foot-wide median is like a misbegotten island; the land that slopes down on either side of the highway is either flooded by several feet of water or slathered in thick mud.
Baking in the midday sun and lashed by monsoon rains, the flood victims are wholly dependent on the occasional humanitarian aid truck that pulls over to hand out biscuits and beans, or Samaritan motorists moved by the sight of people marooned on a highway.
Most families on the median have been there since late July, when the rains deluged the city of Charsadda and the rest of northwestern Pakistan. Since then, the floods have submerged a swath of Pakistan the size of Italy, killing at least 1,600 people and disrupting the lives of more than 20 million.
The crisis, the worst natural disaster in the country’s history, has robbed millions of farmers, laborers and merchants of their livelihoods and forced them to scramble for ways to survive.
Along the M-1, signs abound that families have resigned themselves to an existence on an expressway. Clothes and blankets washed in the nearby Kabul River have been draped on guardrails to dry. In places, water buffalo that farmers managed to rescue bask lazily in a traffic lane, forcing the vehicles to bottleneck. Next to the median’s edge, an old man crouches and washes his hair while another man rides by on a bicycle on the expressway’s inside lane, against oncoming traffic.
Inside the tents, whatever people could salvage from their submerged villages is piled into corners. In Shaukat Ali’s tent, clouds of flies hover over a battered bicycle, a weathered bed frame and a few empty plastic jugs. In the center, one of Ali’s teenage daughters waters a sapling that had been in the median before the Alis arrived and now serves as an attempt at decor. There are no toilets; the nearest private spot is a grove of trees to the side of the highway.
“The floods destroyed our house and village,” says Bakhtawar Shah, father to 13 children, eight of whom live with him in two tents on the median. “Life’s very hard here. When it rains, we stay in the tent all day. But we have a better chance of getting food and money here than at one of the relief camps.”
As SUVs and sedans speed by, some villagers flag them down. When a car slows, they converge on the driver in a scramble for food or money.
Much of the aid from motorists is impromptu, but some Pakistanis have heard about the plight of those camped on the median and make a special trip to deliver relief.
In many ways, the hardship faced by these flood victims crystallizes the suffering millions of Pakistanis are enduring after being upended by this summer’s devastation and left to wonder whether they will ever regain what they’ve lost.
On a recent afternoon, Mohammed Nasir and Mohammed Naeem drove 320 miles from Faisalabad in central Punjab province, parked their silver Toyota Corolla on the shoulder of the expressway and walked from tent to tent handing out 1,000-rupee notes, about $12.
“Everyone should be helping these people,” says Naeem, a 35-year-old fabric merchant. “They’re in such dire straits. The government should be responding to this crisis immediately, but it’s clear they’re not here.”
Charsadda’s administration chief, Ajmal Khan, says the flood victims belong in nearby relief camps, not on the expressway. Panhandlers have aggravated the situation by mingling with flood victims in hopes of exploiting the crisis.
“We’ve already established camps in different places for these flood victims on the M-1, and we plan to shift them to those camps,” Khan says.
The families camping out on the median point to the violent scrums that routinely break out in the camps around trucks bringing food and drinking water, saying they’d rather take their chances with traffic.
Every parent along the median shares the same concern: keeping their children from getting struck by cars. Along Shah’s stretch of median near the Peshawar interchange, five children have been hit by cars in recent days, he says, adding that none of them were seriously hurt. Mothers tug at their children’s tunics and sharply warn them to stay on the median, but the youngsters still race across to the shoulder when parents turn away.
“Our most important duty here is to keep our kids from being run over,” says Hayat Gul, 32, a car mechanic living on the median with his wife and four children. “We tell them again and again, ‘Don’t go in the road!’”
As bleak as life is along the median, villagers here worry that authorities won’t allow them to stay much longer. Shah says highway police have already told families that they’ll have to pick up stakes soon.
When that happens, Shah isn’t sure where he and his family will move.
“They don’t want us here anymore,” Shah says. “So we’ll just have to find a dry patch somewhere else.”