The Chinook helicopters, travelling in pairs, swooped and curled between the lush valley walls of the Hindu Kush. The aftermath of Pakistan’s epic flood scrolled underneath: torn bridges, crushed houses, entire fields swept away by the racing waters.
Inside the helicopters about 70 highland peasants, mostly fathers and their sons, gripping one another in terror and wonderment. Some poked fingers in their ears against the deafening engine roar; others peered out of the open hatch, awestruck — they had never seen their homeland like this before.
At a small military base the villagers stumbled out of the Chinooks, clothes pressed to their skin by the powerful rotorwash. Then their rescuers — silent American soldiers in black, bug-like helmets, eyes hidden behind mysterious looking black visors, turned around and headed back up the valley for more.
The sight of US soldiers in the Swat valley, which only last year was a Taliban stronghold, is one of the many effects of Pakistan’s superflood. Swat was the starting point of the calamity, where a biblical downpour of rain lasting three days gave birth to a torrent that would sweep across the length of Pakistan.
Downstream, the waters moved relatively slowly, smothering fields and houses. But in Swat the flood moved with raw and destructive power, a high-velocity train that demolished everything in its path — aid workers compared it to the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia — and left tens of thousands of people cut off from the outside world.
That is where the Americans stepped in. The US has spent $362m on flood aid, dispatching 26 helicopters to deliver food and evacuate stranded villagers in Swat and Sindh. The Americans say their airlift is a mercy mission but it also has a strategic component.
Americans are despised across Pakistan, with the latest Pes survey showing that 60 per cent of Pakistanis view them as an enemy.
On the ground, though, it is not so easy. Co-operation with their Pakistani counterparts can be stiff, even tense. Americans are not allowed to carry guns; so the only weapons are borne by Pakistani commandos.
‘They want our n-bomb’
At Ghazi airbase a Pakistani sentry said he admired the money and resources they brought to the aid effort. “But what they really want is to take our nuclear bombs,” he added. In the choppers US soldiers wear helmet patches commemorating other soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars that are viewed with great hostility in Pakistan. The Americans struggle to understand Pakistani priorities.
But gratitude to America has risen. In Jare, midway up the valley, thousands of people clambered along a riverbank because the road had been swept away. About 60 metres above them, half-houses protruded from a cliff-face that had been shorn off by the water; a shattered toilet and kitchen sink lay among the river rocks below. A pair of US Chinooks whizzed overhead. “We don’t like the drones when they target innocents,” said Izhar Ali, an 18-year-old student. “But our people need help now, and we don’t care where it comes from.”
Last July Swatis might have been forgiven for thinking their misfortune was over. The army offensive cleared the Taliban from much of the valley; the insurgent leader Maulvi Fazlullah had fled to Afghanistan. Shopkeepers painted Pakistan flags on their shutters; this summer the authorities dared to organise a tourist festival. Few visitors came, but it was a sign of hope.
In more than 60 hours of non-stop torrential rainfall, the floods washed all that away. The north-west normally receives 500mm of rain in the month of July; over one five-day period 5,000mm fell.
Environmental neglect exacerbated the damage. Decades of deforestation, driven by a “timber mafia” that includes the Taliban, had denuded most valley slopes. So the racing downpour funnelled into the middle of the valley. For most Swatis, the focus has turned to reconstruction. The scale of the task is daunting: 45 bridges destroyed, at least 10,000 acres of land washed away, countless houses and shops destroyed.
Will the flood make the Americans more popular?
The precedents are not encouraging. After the 2005 earthquake the US military also dispatched a fleet of Chinooks into the mountains. A year later, US popularity ratings nudged up by four points.
But 12 months after that, as the George W. Bush administration clung to the floundering dictator Pervez Musharraf, the numbers plunged to their lowest level since 2001.
In Pakistan, there are some things that aid just cannot fix. The US has spent $362m on flood aid, dispatching 26 helicopters to deliver food and evacuate stranded villagers in Swat and Sindh.