Death Row

Ayza AfridiMarch 6, 2023Violence and HealingHelping Hands
Death Row

Artwork by Daniel Bermejo, age 14

May 14th, 2022, Jacobabad, Pakistan.

Nazia, a 20-year-old mother of two is preparing a meal for her family when she collapses in the oppressive heat that is par for the course in her hometown. Having the enviable status of experiencing 122 degrees Fahrenheit over the past four successive summers, Jacobabad residents share an inside joke “when we go to hell, we shall take blankets.” Today, Jacobabad has exceeded 123.8 degrees Fahrenheit and has become one of the hottest inhabited places on planet Earth. Sadly, for Nazia, the city’s primary health care is no match for her condition, and she succumbs to the heat while lying on a make-shift stretcher in the partial shade of a poorly funded women’s community health center, her six-month-old daughter wailing next to her while her husband Ali looks on helplessly.

A day later, in a parallel world, I was dragged out of bed during a perfectly good Sunday morning sleep for a beach clean-up by a straw hat donned mom. As a well-known local crusader, she has been instrumental in developing my interest in the environment. We have regularly teamed up for neighborhood garbage collection drives and I have watched her participate in city council on a myriad of civic issues. An avid reader of Rachel Carson, little did I know how directly the doomsday prophecy of climate change was about to unfold in front of me.

Most pregnant women in Jacobabad describe their lives as akin to being on “Death Row.” Pregnant or not, they spend the better part of the day in the fields with their young ones playing under make-shift blanket shade. The evening shade brings a semblance of relief as they gather on their mud roofs to catch whatever breeze nature may provide.

Since the beginning of March, an unprecedented heat wave has gripped India and Pakistan, affecting more than a billion people on the subcontinent. Jacobabad has been among the worst hit, experiencing temperatures in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit for 51 straight days, pushing the limits of human survivability. Humidity conspires with the heat to make living conditions more oppressive.

Perversely, climate change has recently dealt Jacobabad a different mortal blow. In August 2022 (a mere three months after Nazia’s heat-induced death), Jacobabad was also engulfed by Pakistan’s super flood as melting glaciers combined with abnormal rains caused swollen rivers to burst their banks and enter the baking cities of Sindh. Jacobabad, a city compared to a human furnace in May, is now modern-day Atlantis with over 100 residents drowning, including 40 children. Over 500 people were dead from water borne diseases in the first 30 days since impact. Death Row turned into swift execution.

Ali is a prime example of thousands of people with similar heart-wrenching stories. He was spared the agony of seeing his home crumble under the weight of the mighty River Indus, and shortly after Nazia’s death, he left his children with his sister to travel 340 km south to Karachi in search of work.

Karachi, a throbbing metropolis of over 25 million is the economic nerve center of Pakistan; a melting pot for all to try their luck at striking gold. With no education or formal skills other than tending to livestock, Ali soon found himself as part of a small-time motor-bike theft gang. When the floods arrived, an influx of climate refugees entered the city, providing a fillip to the criminal activities already prevalent. Ali’s gang expanded to snatching cellular phones and wallets from commuters stuck in potholes left by the rains on Karachi’s dilapidated infrastructure.

While my mother introduced me to the importance of educating the educated about civic responsibility, my father has shown me the value of giving back to the community. He serves on the Board of Karachi’s Kidney Center Hospital (TKCI), providing free care to those that need it. Over dinner on the same fateful weekend of May 14th , 2022, he had excitedly shared the news of hiring a bright young professional to head the HR function of TKCI.

Meanwhile, given his growing prowess, Ali was awarded a gun to target the more affluent cars. On September 1, 2022, as Karachi too was being lashed by mighty monsoon rains, Ali received news that his younger son had died of complications from Dengue fever in water ravaged Jacobabad. Raging against nature, and humanity (or the lack of it), Ali came across a young family sitting in their car outside a popular ice cream parlor in the city.

Ali, with a careless finger on the trigger, rapped on the window and demanded the usual cellular phones. The young man (yes, the same young man recently appointed by my father to work at TKCI) in the driver’s seat had a 6-year-old son in the back and a one-year-old infant lying in the lap of his mother in the front seat. Ali was reminded of his family that he lost, and unable to control his demons, or perhaps triggered by an untimely rumble of thunder, the gun went off.

Another innocent life taken, another family destroyed. Climate change statistics will surely not account for this death. A few days later, Ali was caught in a belated police action against the upsurge in Karachi Street crime. As Ali contemplated Death Row, the local and global headlines occupied themselves with images of climate change induced flooding in Pakistan with over a third of its land mass submerged, 33 million people displaced, and over 1 million livestock and over 2,000 humans dead and counting. However, mere statistics do not do justice to the magnitude of the disaster unfolding. Over 150 countries have total populations of less than those displaced in a matter of weeks in Pakistan, and each one of these families is now living on Death Row with a choice of famine, water borne disease, or exposure to the elements as their form of lethal injection.

The youngest Pakistanis are the most at risk. Routine gives children a sense of security, and youngsters who have seen their lives upended overnight by a cataclysmic event, with no end in sight to the disruption, are at enormous risk for post-traumatic stress disorder. It dooms millions of children to a future in which they will never achieve their full potential. Learning of the sad fate of the TKCI HR head, I engaged my peer group to collaborate in two meaningful ways to combat the climate-change induced crisis. First, we used our school’s alumni network that runs an education fund to ensure that both children of the young man killed by Ali were awarded full scholarships (including books, uniforms and transportation) for the remainder of their primary and secondary education.

Second, we joined hands with the city’s climate council to seed over a dozen urban forests within a 15km radius. This will not bring back Nazia or her child or perhaps even save Ali from a life behind bars. However, this will instill a sense of urgency for all of us to fight the “terror of climate change.”

As I witnessed these events and their horrific consequences unfolding, I pondered over the reality of climate change for weeks. Despite the media reports and numerous articles, I, along with most of peers have been unable to grasp the seriousness of this issues until the treacherous floods came our way. Going forward, Pakistan’s children must be at the heart of the rehabilitation effort, otherwise, Death Row may run out of room.

Ayza Afridi is turning 16 and entering grade 11 at Karachi Grammar School in Pakistan. Ayza is interested in psychology and would potentially like to pursue a career in this field. Ayza is a strong advocate for children’s right to childhood, ensuring that every child has a right and opportunity to play in appropriate surroundings rather than be forced into child labor.