Sombre Ramadan dawns on Pakistan

Pakistani flood survivors already short on food and water began the fasting month of Ramadan, a normally festive, social time marked this year by misery and fears of an uncertain future.

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A technical fault delayed an airlift of $1 million worth of AusAID emergency relief equipment to victims of the floods, and some Australians were reportedly stranded in the town of Leh.

Damage to crops, roads and bridges have caused food prices to triple in some parts of the country, adding to the pain of the 14 million people affected by one of the worst-ever natural disasters to hit the already poor nation.

“Ramadan or no Ramadan, we are already dying of hunger,” said Mai Hakeema, a 50-year-old who sat alongside her ailing husband in a tent outside the city of Sukkur.

“We are fasting forcibly, and mourning our losses.”

Observant Muslims fast from dawn to dusk each day for a month each year to control their desires and show empathy for the poor.

The month is marked by increased attendance at mosques, a rise in charitable giving and family gatherings.

While millions of flood-affected people were performing the fast, Mufti Muneebur Rehman, one of the country’s top religious scholars, said victims living in difficult conditions dependent on charity could skip the fast and perform later in the year.

The floods hit the country more than two weeks ago, beginning in the northwest before spreading down the country and inundating thousands of villages.

About 1500 people have been killed, and the UN estimates there are up to seven million people who need emergency assistance.

On Wednesday, the UN appealed for $US460 million to provide immediate help, including shelter, food, clean water, sanitation and medical care.

“Make no mistake, this is a major catastrophe,” UN humanitarian chief John Holmes told diplomats from several dozen countries in launching the appeal in New York.

“We have a huge task in front of us. The death toll has so far been relatively low compared to other major natural disasters, but the numbers affected are extraordinarily high.”

In the northwest, where residents tends to follow a more strict brand of Islam, many refugees said flood or no flood, they would fast.

“I cannot disobey God, so I am fasting as it is part of my faith no matter what the conditions are,” said Fazal Rabi, 47, who was staying in a tent village in Akbarpura.

The Pakistani government’s response to the crisis has been criticised by many as too slow and patchy, and the civilian leaders have struggled to rally public opinion in their favour.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani flew to southwestern Baluchistan province on Thursday to see flood-hit areas.

He told The Associated Press that Pakistan still needs more helicopters to assist in the relief work.

“We will try our best to reach millions of people to ensure that they get food and other basic items during and after the month of Ramadan,” he said while aboard a military plane.

Meanwhile, the United States said it was more than doubling the number of helicopters it was providing to help.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said the USS Peleliu was off the coast near Karachi, carrying 19 helicopters and a complement of about 1000 Marines.

The helicopters will help rescue people and deliver food and other supplies.

Australia has already committed $A10 million to help flood victims, and this week the Australian federal government announced it would send two military planes carrying emergency supplies to help the people of Pakistan.

The first of the two RAAF C-17 Globemaster aircraft flights to Pakistan had been due to depart an air force base west of Brisbane on Thursday afternoon, but was delayed by a technical fault.

During the next week the Australian Defence Force will airlift $A1 million worth of AusAID emergency relief, including tents, tarpaulins, plastic sheeting, and water purification equipment to help more than 10,000 affected families.

They will also carry generators, birthing kits and water containers.

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