From Chile's mines to flooded Pakistan, where is hell on Earth?

Adrienne Arsenault on those who are really trapped by Pakistan's flood.
Trapped. In a relief camp near the Pakistani city of Janpur, a woman named Razia waits for days, with a broken back, for transport to a hospital. (Richard Devey/CBC)

You watch the news and wonder what crosses the weary minds of those 33 Chilean miners nearly 700 metres below the surface? Stuck. Trapped. Now knowing there are months left as moles in the dark?

Are they trying to strike a balance between eating enough to survive but not so much that they get sick or, God forbid, too wide to fit through the 70-centimetre hole that will take so many months to dig?

How do they connect enough emotionally with each other to stay strong but not so much that they might divide into cliques or turn on each other in moments of stress?

Understandably, the world wonders. Even NASA has been consulted on how to keep these men stable.

Apparently, being stuck so far down is an awful lot like being stuck so many kilometres up.

Trapped by the sun

But is being trapped in the dark any worse than being trapped in the blazing, blistering sun? Confined not by walls but by a stinking, menacing ocean where there didn't used to be one?

PHOTO GALLERY: Marooned in Pakistan, a day on the water with Adrienne Arsenault

Pakistan's marooned millions are so trapped, as I now have seen after 10 days of reporting in the flood zone, a pitifully short time for a disaster as big as this.

Back at home, it is these trapped people who I feel tapping me on the shoulder as I walk home at the end of a day. They are the ones I can see staring back from empty spaces.

Trying to imagine what it was like to make it through just one day in their position pretty much consumed us last week as we spent a day in the belly of a tiny military rescue boat with the exhausted soldiers of the Baseera region in Punjab.

What we travelled on was not a lake. And it was nowhere near where the Indus River was supposed to be.

Before the rains came, it had been a bustling farming community a good 15 or 20 kilometres back from the river's edge. But, now, it was just a vast expanse of water with only the slimmest of patches of land visible.


It was eerie enough ducking our heads to avoid the tops of palm trees as we motored through the still-rising waters.

Huddling on small hill tops to escape the flood waters, few want to leave because all their land and possessions are under the waves and they fear losing them forever. (Richard Devey/CBC)

What was worse was what happened when the boat would glide towards what would pass for shore — a raised sandy hill or a collection of rubble poking up out of the fetid soup.

Long before we saw any people, we could hear them whistling, shouting at the boats.

Sometimes, one hill-top population would seem to be trying to out-shout another group, a kilometre or so away, trying to woo the craft to its location.

Landing the boat meant being instantly surrounded and talked at. I don't think I have ever seen or heard so many women start talking so loudly and so suddenly.

All wanted to tell the soldiers about their aching stomachs or dizziness and weakness, about husbands and homes lost, about the 42 degree heat and humidity, about trying simply get along with other stranded strangers who had also sought refuge in the sand.

They argued, they picked on each other. The loud ones were annoying; the quiet ones simply stewed. It is what we all would do, no?

Can't afford to leave

However, the answer, apparently, wasn't to take them away from each other and off to safety. No one wanted to leave.

Because their homes were submerged along with all of their documents and possessions, they feared leaving and heading to distant camps never to be able to really return.

As long as they stayed on those hilltops, they could hope that the waters would eventually recede and they could salvage something. Anything.

So the army made visits once or twice a week with basic rations.

Then, the soldiers would just push back from shore and leave these strangers to themselves; leave them to sort out all their grievances on their own, to divide themselves into groups for chores — who cooks, who makes a latrine, who watches the children to keep the lizards and snakes away while some sleep, who divvies out the food supplies and how. Trapped.

'We have to hurry'

At the edge of relief camp in Janpur, in Punjab, several hundred kilometres away from the sunken community of Baseera, I met a woman named Razia, who may have been in her 30s but looked so much older.

This time, we flew in on a Pakistani military helicopter. Full of supplies, it had just touched down and, while food and water were being unloaded, a young captain brought us to Razia's side.

In the wet heat, she was lying on a bed frame, small children crawling all over her.

Capt. Usman held her hand and asked how she was. Not good apparently.

Razia had broken her back in three places, while she was escaping to the roof of her home as the flood waters surged.

The doctors at the camp had done some rudimentary surgery but she needed to be in a real hospital; she needed drugs, proper food and rest.

For a moment I thought the captain was preparing to move her but he just squeezed her hand and walked away. "Soon" he said. "We'll move her soon. We just don't have the right equipment now. Come on, we have to hurry."

And that was it. We climbed back into the chopper and were off again.

Naively, I wondered why they just didn't bundle Razia up and take her with them. But the captain said it would have been too unsafe for her.

That was on Aug.18th. I called Capt. Usman the morning of the 25th for an update.

"Good news," he said. "We moved Razia yesterday."

Yesterday. Good news to him. But an interminably long wait from my soft, privileged perspective.

Can you imagine being in that much pain and immobile and stuck in the heat and sun with the mosquitos and other nasties, and barely any food or water?

That is trapped. If only NASA could advise here too.