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Church aid workers begin to reach flooded Pakistanis

Church aid workers in Pakistan were gradually reaching hundreds of thousands of people displaced and rendered homeless by the rain and floods that had claimed more than 1,200 lives in Pakistan’s mountainous northwestern region.

“The biggest challenge before us is how to (get) relief to the needy. Bridges have collapsed and roads have been washed out,” Carolyn Fanelli, Catholic Relief Services’ (CRS) acting country representative in Pakistan, told Catholic News Service.

Eric Dayal, national coordinator for disaster management of Caritas Pakistan, said his agency was faced with the same difficulty.

“Access to the affected people is the biggest problem confronting us now,” he told Catholic News Service. “Most of the roads in the affected (area) are gone and even telephone links are broken. With electric supply also disrupted, communication remains a big headache.”

Fanelli said CRS was in touch with its 40 staff in the field through satellite phones, even though in the most devastated areas they had vacated their offices. She quoted staffers as saying that the Karakoram Highway passing through Besham is “like a river.”

From Besham, Fanelli said, CRS staff reported they had already cleared land and purchased building material for a school for the victims of the 2005 earthquake that claimed nearly 100,000 lives.

“But, now everything has been washed away,” she said.

Fanelli said the unprecedented rains in the mountainous region have had a crippling impact on the people, who “have no roof and are struggling in the open without food or even drinking water.”

“Our immediate concern is to reach shelter and hygiene kits to these affected people,” she said, noting that the initial aid donation would help 20,000, and more aid would be sent after assessments from field workers.

Dayal said that Caritas Pakistan already moved tent material to be distributed through Multan Diocese and plans to take care of about 2,500 families in emergency response. He warned about the potential for epidemics if people did not get aid, including clean water.

Said Mehmood, senior field engineer for CRS in Besham, reported that staffers walked along muddy roads blocked by landslides and had to cross a temporary bridge made of electrical utility poles to reach some of the villages.

In an effort to get food from the market in Besham, Mehmood said, “People are coming toward Besham from different affected areas after continuously walking through dangerous and irregular hilly areas for 8 to 10 hours.”

Caritas Pakistan reported that it had finalized plans to provide much-needed relief to 2,500 families hard hit by one of the worst floods in Pakistan’s history, reported the Asian church news agency UCA News.

“Our assessment teams have submitted their reports. We shall start providing food items, nonfood items, tents and medical aid next week,” said Anila Jacolin Gill, national executive secretary of Caritas Pakista.

The most seriously affected areas include Islamabad-Rawalpindi and Multan dioceses as well Quetta vicariate.

“There is a desperate need to alleviate the considerable suffering without any distinction of caste, creed or ethnic origin,” said Bishop Victor Gnanapragasam of Quetta.

Father Amir Yaqub in the Nowshehra district in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province said people are encamped along the main highway in the region.

“Hundreds of Christians and Hindu families have moved to safer places. A group of nuns has also left the area,” he said from his parish house in Nowshehra.

Pakistan’s government said hat it has already deployed more than 30,000 troops to rescue marooned people and to deliver aid to them.

With more than a million people already affected by the floods and meteorologists predicting heavy rains in the monsoon season, aid workers fear tougher times ahead.

Pope Benedict XVI offered his prayers for the victims of huge forest fires in Russia and the victims of severe flooding in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

At the end of his weekly general audience on Wednesday, Pope Benedict asked God to relieve the victims’ suffering and prayed that “the solidarity of all” would not be lacking.

In Western Russia, where hundreds of forest fires were burning out of control, the death toll reached 48 Aug. 4 and about 2,000 families had lost their homes, government officials said.

Late July and early August flooding in northwestern Pakistan caused some 1,500 deaths and displaced about 3 million people, the government estimated. Flash floods in northeastern Afghanistan claimed the lives of at least 65 people.

“I pray to the Lord for the victims and am spiritually close to those tried by such adversity,” the pope said.