ROHRI, Pakistan — The small rubber boat manned by two Pakistani navy personnel churned through the vast expanse of brown water, passing scattered clumps of treetops and the thatched roofs of a few houses in search of stranded villagers.
The craft was part of an operation to rescue people around Sukkur, the city in Sindh province where the wall of water unleashed by the worst flooding in Pakistan's history was cresting Tuesday as it moved south down the Indus River toward the Arabian Sea.
Those who didn't heed warnings to evacuate areas near the river, refusing to believe that their homes would be submerged, are now marooned on rooftops or in trees by a surging tide infested with snakes. They have little or no food, are forced to drink the filthy water and are prey to bands of boat-borne bandits.
The water, which had risen slowly here for a week, gushed up over the weekend as the main body of the torrent swept in from the north, drowning farmlands and jungle as far the eye can see.
The flooding has killed some 1,600 people and affected 14 million others, according to the United Nations, overwhelming the government's ability to cope and submerging some of the most heavily populated areas and fertile agricultural lands. In Sindh alone, some 1.5 million people have been displaced so far, provincial authorities said Tuesday.
A McClatchy reporter rode aboard the boat as it left the riverbank at Rohri, a small town near Sukkur, where the river was 13 feet deep. The craft had been under way for about an hour before our guide, a local man, pointed to trees sticking out of the water. There he said, was his village, Allah Dhinoo.
As the boat approached, a man's yelling led the boat through a tangle of treetops to a thatched roof. Nearby, two young men waded neck-high through the flood. From just under the roof, inches above the water, a third was carried to the boat, a disabled man who had been suspended on a bed placed on the rafters.
The men refused to leave without a goat, which was loaded onto the boat, along with what appeared to be a fighting cock, two smaller birds in a cage, two trunks of possessions and a cache of shotguns. The goat promptly defecated and urinated in the boat. Left behind on the roof were several dogs that howled pleadingly as the craft departed.
"That's to deal with the bandits," explained 30-year-old Nadir Ali Bhurro, pointing to the shotguns as he climbed aboard, clad in only a loincloth, having first taken care to lock his submerged house. "We have to bring our valuables because the bandits have big boats and they'll take our stuff when we're gone."
The Sindh countryside is notorious for bandits and the area by the river was always a favorite hideout. The outlaws apparently have been taking advantage of the floods by ransacking abandoned homes.
At the next stop, four men and a woman were huddled on a flimsy roof. They'd stacked their belongings in locked trunks atop a brick structure nearby, along with a tall metal cylinder for storing grain.
"We've just been eating rice for the last few days," said Atta Mohammad, 20. "And drinking the river water."
At a third stop, just a few hundred yards away, chickens that had been surviving on a thatched roof were tied up, bundled into a steel trunk, and brought aboard the boat, along with the man who had been minding them.
"The chickens are very valuable," explained Bhurro, who gave only one name. "What else are we going to live on once we're out of the village?"
The boat's crew was indulgent, allowing the animals and other belongings on board. The victims of this flood are dirt poor. Most have lost their annual store of grain.
"People don't leave their birds behind," said Guftar Ahmed, who was steering the craft. "We have to try to accommodate their needs."
As the boat turned to return to Rohri, small heads became visible bobbing along in mid-stream. Those too desperate to wait for rescue were swimming for dry land, a distance of several miles.
When we approached, it was obvious that the swimmers, several young men, were exhausted. With no room left on the boat, two clung to the sides and were pulled along through the flood.
Their shriveled hands, barely able to hang on, testified to the hours they'd spent in the water. They had lashed empty plastic jugs around themselves for buoyancy, and had wrapped their clothes around their heads.
Once on land, Ashiq Ali, 20, said that the pair had taken to the water when they finally abandoned a hope of saving their buffaloes.
"We got very tired (swimming)," said Ali, from Alaf Kacha village, about eight miles away. "Back there, we have 30 buffaloes. Each is worth 30,000 rupees ($350). How could we just leave them behind?"
The rescue mission had taken three hours. The boat turned around to retrieve other swimmers. Many such missions take five or six hours, said Major Noor Ulamin, who was supervising rescue missions from the riverbank.
"These people don't understand the gravity of the situation, how far the water will rise," Ulamin said. "It is still rising."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2010