My sordid tale of rescue
It was a regular day of reporting last Saturday. News of rain devastating most parts of Kashmir was pouring in. Nine soldiers were trapped during rescue operations in South Kashmir. Chief minister Omar Abdullah, in a bright yellow jacket, had been overseeing rescue efforts throughout Saturday night. Preparations for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit were on.brunch Updated: Sep 13, 2014 00:33 IST
It was a regular day of reporting last Saturday. News of rain devastating most parts of Kashmir was pouring in. Nine soldiers were trapped during rescue operations in South Kashmir. Chief minister Omar Abdullah, in a bright yellow jacket, had been overseeing rescue efforts throughout Saturday night. Preparations for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit were on. Amid the chaos that night, a call from a friend asking about my parents was alarming. I called my father about the status of water in their locality.
As the bylanes appreared clogged, my parents said they might have to leave the next morning. My father seemed convinced that the waters won't breach the high walls of their lawn in the MIG Colony in Qamarwari, one of the upmarket areas of Srinagar. Convinced, I carried on with my work.
At 3am on Sunday, the Jhelum breached its banks near my parent's house. My parents said water started gushing into their three-storeyed house. By 6am, all exit points were clogged. My parents, both in their early sixties, with my sister-in-law and my two-year-old nephew were stranded. By 12 noon, the house was under 12 feet of water. Panic-stricken, I tried calling all officials in the state. The Kashmir divisional commissioner and the Srinagar district commissioner had switched off their phones.
CM Abdullah's number was also out of reach, forcing me to leave an SMS around 11am. All I managed to reach was a disaster management official who ironically had been rescued after three days of struggle in the flood. The entire administration seemed busy attending to the Prime Minister.
The CM replied to my SMS at 4.30pm, saying the priority was Rajbagh as water was fast seeping into the area. By this time the water had almost reached the second floor of our house and my family and other residents of the locality had to move to the third floor. Around 5pm, the phone connection with me went down while I was talking to my father. As the call dropped, I tried endlessly till I gave up.
My brother had meanwhile taken a flight back home but the sheer force of water did not allow him to reach the family. "It's like a gushing stream in Pahalgam," he told me. He was just a km away watching helplessly. Meanwhile, my aunt was carried to the third floor of her house in the posh Rajbagh area.
She along with 25 of her relatives, including eight children, was crying for help. Amid distress calls to officials and reporting the PM's visit while none in the staff had internet access, I got the news that our office was submerged as water had breached the city centre Lal Chowk. Meanwhile, my uncle had hired a local boat to rescue my aunt refuting the claims of the authorities that Rajbagh was priority.
Rowing over chinar tree tops, trying to locate my aunt's house among the only visible shining roofs, my uncles managed to rescue their sister from the half submerged third storey of the house. It was after 12 rounds in the small shikara that the 25 people were out. "It was traumatic. People were shouting for help but we became selfish and just wanted to rescue our own first," one of my uncles said. "By the time we finished it was very dark and impossible to go back. I have not had a peaceful sleep and will never be able to forget those cries for help for the rest of my life," he said.
While rescuing their sister, their own house got submerged near Dal Lake. They along with the rescued family moved into a dargah on a hilltop which at that point seemed the only good option. My family had been stranded. I and my brother tried sending messages to friends in Delhi asking them to try for rescue helplines. The numbers flashed across news channels were not working. I lost contact with the rest of the world around Sunday midnight.
Although I had spoken to the Kashmir police chief during the day, he tried to reach his senior at night but the rising water stopped him. With no phone and internet, my brother decided to undertake the rescue himself. Managing to get a strong shikara around 2pm on Monday, he rowed 2km with a small piece of wood to reach his locality.
"I was the first one to reach area and I heard cries for help from all sides," he said. My aged parents decided to stay back and let my sister-in-law and nephew to take shikara as it was small. After the boat reached them a second time, they let the neighbour's daughter and another neighbour's son go. Around 30 people, including children, were stranded as there had been a death in their family.
Monday night passed as my father, a diabetic, and my mother, a hypertension patient with a heart condition, were forced to stay on in a half-submerged house in candlelight. By Tuesday, my brother managed to reach our parents by 5pm and promised his neighbours that he would be back. Some asked for medicines, some for food and water. While my relatives managed to rescue family members from two worst affected areas of Srinagar with no help from the government, 90% of people in the inundated areas are still without food, electricity and water. But for their families, many would not have made it to safety.
I am writing this piece not knowing whether it will be able to reach my readers with no phone or internet connection. As I heard the connection has been restored on the hilltop, I am writing with a hope that it will make it through the heartless waters of Jhelum and knock at the hearts of the citizens of this country. We can together force the Centre and state government to undertake real rescue operations and not just run promos for news channels.
(Toufiq Rashid is the Hindustan Times, Srinagar, bureau chief and was stranded in the floods for six days)