PANGRIO, Pakistan (AP) — Desperate to save his grandmother from floodwaters swamping southern Pakistan, Ali Ahmed and three other relatives stuck her in a large metal cooking pot and pulled her to safety through neck-high water.
The men swam for several hours through driving rain, unable to rest because the water was too deep.
"It was the most spine-chilling experience of my life, and I will never forget it" said Ahmed, surrounded by a couple dozen white tents set up outside Pangrio town on the only patch of dry ground for miles around.
The rescuers finally reached a road and transported Rasti Bibi to a hospital in Pangrio, where she was treated for acute diarrhea, said Ahmed. The town, like much of southern Sindh province, is under water.
Pakistani authorities are unsure how many people are still stranded by floods that first hit Pakistan in August following unusually heavy monsoon rains and have affected at least 5.4 million people.
In Sindh alone, the floods have killed over 220 people, damaged or destroyed some 665,000 homes and displaced more than 1.8 million people, according to the United Nations. Neighboring Baluchistan province has also been affected.
Bibi's family ferried her to safety about three weeks ago, but the other 300 members of their village, Suleman Hamadani, were only saved a few days ago by the military, said Ahmed.
The air force commandos who made up the rescue team said they happened upon the villagers as they were searching the area by boat.
"Earlier, we had an impression that all have been evacuated, but we realized during our two-day operation that many villagers still need to be rescued," said one of the commandos, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. "This area is far-flung and also beyond the capacity of the civilian rescue workers."
The Pakistani government was widely criticized last year for its stuttering response to the worst floods in the country's history, which affected at least 18 million people and inundated one-fifth of Pakistan — an area the size of the United Kingdom.
The floods have been less severe this year but have still sparked criticism of the government, which is widely disliked and is already struggling against Islamist militants, political turmoil and massive economic problems.
Sindh experienced widespread flooding last year as well.
While some of the districts have been flooded twice, many of the hardest-hit towns and villages, such as Pangrio and Suleman Hamadani, were unaffected in 2010.
The Pakistan army said it has rescued 58,000 people from the current floods and has distributed 885 tons of rations.
But being rescued is just one step in a long road to recovery for many flood victims, especially the very old and young.
Bibi, the elderly grandmother who relatives estimate is over 100 years old, lay stretched out on the rough ground outside her tent, weakly raising bony hands to swat flies away from her wrinkled face. Her family doesn't know what will happen to them since their village was entirely flooded.
"We lost everything, and our children are sick," said Bibi's grandson, Ahmed.
The U.N. World Food Program said Tuesday that some 3 million people are in need of food assistance in Sindh.
The U.N. issued an appeal Sunday for $357 million to provide food, water, sanitation, health and emergency shelter to flood victims. But filling the appeal after raising at least $2 billion for last year's floods could prove difficult.
"We look to our donors and their usual generosity to help us reach all those in immediate need following this latest disaster, while ensuring that the recovery of those affected last year is not compromised," said the World Food Program's acting country director in Pakistan, Dominique Frankefort.