The Kashmir flood survivors’ tales
Sunday (Sept 7): Clouds and sun were playing hide and seek with the clouds weighing heavy that day. Since morning, internet connection was erratic. Earlier, around 2:30 am my fiancé warned me of rising water in the first floor of her three-storey (28-feet high) house at Wazir Bagh in uptown of Srinagar, that remained at the eye of the storm. By afternoon, a panic-stricken voice of her alarmed me. "The neighbour's house has fallen. Our's is swaying and will fall soon. We have kids here. Please arrange a boat or chopper. I beg of you. No one is able to help us," she shrieked.
I started driving from one end of the city to other to hire a boat. At Dal lake, with thin chance of getting a boat as since the morning people paid hefty sums to buy one to save loved ones, water gatecrashed its gates. Suddenly road to pick up a boat was closed by panicky locals. Streets swarmed by people, wondering at the swelling lake, brimming, seeping, gushing and submerging.
Prayers were on my lips now and a hope that water may rise only couple of feet as calculated by half of the Srinagar, by best engineers, by officials and the stuck cream of the society. Another distress call: "Please forgive me. We will not see each other again. Please forgive, we are going to die now," said the sobbing voice.
Calling up police officials, higher ups in administration and friends failed to secure any rescue measure. Senior officials had started switching off phones, while helpless police officials were categoric that Wazir Bagh was a gone case. With mind blocked with all kind of thoughts, watching water rising at Sangarmall Mall was only useless effort. No one was ready to cross the roaring Jhelum river and Wazir Bagh, just two km away, which seemed 2000 km away, with the river turning into a one big ocean, coloured roofs only sticking their head out. Attempts to seek help from TV journalists in flashing the location failed as phones started going down, internet out. And the long evening and the longest night started to dawn on Srinagar with no lights around. Only noise of slippers and shoes by spellbound residents broke the silence on streets untouched by waters. Traffic evaporated. On my way home, I picked up a friend with four kids. These kids were sent by stranded parents through an unknown boatmen. They were lucky to be spotted by my friend, who knew their parents. I don't know if their parents are alive. There was no rescue all night and seven lakh stranded people were left at the mercy of God.
Monday: Scenes on the streets were more harrowing than any graphic description made of doomsday in religious scriptures: take the graphic details of doomsday from Bible to Quran and live them. It's hell out indeed. People turning zombies and helpless relatives carrying children's inflated plastic boats and life-saving vests as last ditch effort to save daughters, babies, ageing parents, sisters, brothers, friends. Small cars and three-wheelers were carrying double-the-size shikaras (wooden boats) on the top. Every honk sounded like ambulance siren. People got busy turning even bundle of straw, foam, drums and benches into an ark. Srinagar has 14 lakh population. It was 30 percent population saving 70 percent. Only spot to extract information on dead, dangers and water levels, the nearby police stations, were nothing but tombstones of long dead government. Like invading country, water waged war.
It occupied army areas, knocked out communication lines, hit police buildings and arrested top-brass in their own houses. It typically like enemy forces targeted TV stations and radio stations. Only left communication of police was used by civil administration. Choked voice of a deputy commissioner calls for rescue. He directs air lifting, but fails because of unfavourable weather. He names Gogji Bagh, adjoining area of Wazir Bagh, as a spot that needs immediate rescue. A ray of hope rekindled that rescuing VVIPs may help spot my fiancé too. A rare chance but a chance. Waters was showing no signs of lowering its guard. In fact, water started taking areas in just metres away from my house as Dal lake water rose to more than nine feet in residential areas. Water was chasing our locality from two sides -- Eidgah and Botakadal. Night grew longer. Lunches and dinners lost meaning and taking food meant a grave sin. How could people eat with half their families, relations and friends in deep waters, which will go down in history the worst Kashmir has witnessed.
Tuesday: "Water is not rising and is several inches down," said wireless operator at the nearby police station, my only window to the under-water world where my fiancé lived now along with ailing father, relatives and their kids. Everybody around the wireless set heaved a sigh of relief. The senior police officer, who had escaped the wrath of water at Jawahar Nagar, was no more bossy.
Stiffness and straight body of a policeman was all gone. Death was so near to all of us that it demilitarised the mindsets even of the battle-hardened cops. They would be in civvies and filling prayer rooms of the police stations. One senior cop advised me to attend to a nearby mosque and pray. "Also pray in seclusion. It is only way to rescue now...my nears ones are stranded too. Officials are stranded. There is no clear information," he said.
By now, people had decided to un-government the government. From regulating traffic to arranging rescue teams to preparing relief, to break open into schools for rehabilitation, it was a people's republic literally. Unknown faces rushing boats into choppy waters and bringing out zombies of people, half dead. Young. Old. Babies. Woman. "I have no idea where I live," said one rescued woman as I enquired about Wazir Bagh. There was no confirmation about the whereabouts of my fiancé. Only hope was the news of boats being lowered and the multiple army choppers hovering close to the surface. May be they spot her. With news of dead trickling in, to take a nap was nothing but an act of blasphemy. Calculations around water levels, scientific theories, historical experiences and news on now-restored television sets will help us kill time, kill the nights. My cousins, aunts and uncles also remain untraced besides my fiancé.
Wednesday: Anxiety gave way to despair and frustration. What kept hope afloat was daredevil acts of locals working round the clock. Visiting camps of flood-victims failed to provide any clue about my relatives or fiancé. Prayers and mosques, repentance and penance was what kept us busy. My cousin and I decided to take the plunge. Left home in the morning to cross the Jhelum. Started walking several kilometres of alleys of the old city, where in the jostle one would find parted families hugging and reuniting. A newborn surrounded by relatives, kissing foreheads. People setting up stalls of medicine, food and water for affected population. Colonies after colonies submerged, stink around shrines, dust in the air and gloom on the faces. No shadow of government or officials anywhere.
After a two-and-a-half-hour walk, we reached Srinagar's lone maternity hospital Lal Ded near Wazir Bagh. On the way, we are mounted with feed for the patients. A raised embankment passage, with visible breaches, took us to the hospital. We made an entry through the second floor from what turned out to be a labour room. Several wood planks acted as bridges between blocks of the hospital. Room after room, stretchers were strewn as if ghosts have chased patients, who struggled days together to save themselves. Patients were smuggled out with stitches intact, babies tucked by cloth. Blood on the floor was testimony of how they survived the nature's fury. It looked more like a warehouse of junk than a hospital. Stench was unbearable. This multi-storey building only infused awe and shock. On the third floor, we were able to spot the fiancé's house, intact, with some human movement. We were relieved. However, despite waiting all day no boat, busy rescuing known and unknown, took us to the house just 100 feet away, across the street in deluge. Water had receded to the first floor. As sun started setting, leaving the place was the only wise decision. We left to return tomorrow to rescue them.
Thursday: Silence was growing louder with tens of thousands still stranded. Probably, without water, with no washrooms, no beds, no food, and probably with sinking hope. Those stranded who had sleeping pills induced some sleep but the rest stay awake, waiting for either death or saviour to take the final decision. Rescue operation continue to be too small for this magnitude of tragedy. Embarking on a two-and-a-half-hour one-side walk was no big deal now but a routine. My mother accompanied me this time as hope sunk every time the news of houses collapsing in Wazir Bagh came through people visiting these areas on shikaras. Shock in people was visible. No one would dare to click pictures on mobiles. Till date, it haunts me what stopped people from simple clicks. Every officer, police officials, bureaucrats, doctors, engineers and influential lot were nothing but the common man on the street. No high post or approach convinced a boat driver to accompany but tears and desperation. This time, there was good news. My fiancé were rescued already after an old house collapsed on theirs. Nearby stranded people raised alarm, used mosque address system to attract attention. All family members were saved but no one was able to tell us where were they shifted. Hotel after hotel, camp after camp, my fiancé is safe but remain untraced.
Friday: One more good news: phones can catch signals at the height of 700-feet high Hari Parbhat hill near the shrine of Sheikh Hamza Makhdoom, known as Sultan-ul-Arfeen. More than 100 staircases took me to the shrine. Hundreds of people, tourists lined up on rugged stones, rock crevices, praying for a glimpse of signal on phones. Hundreds others sheltering in the shrine sleeping there. Woman, otherwise, stopped from entering male-area of the mosque make their babies sleep there, whispering lullabies. The all-women section of the shrine has men taking a nap after the afternoon meals. Tourists calling their relatives. Announcements on speakers look for people, unite families. Meals time and sleep time were announced as I made my way to rare side of shrine towards Kastur Paend. Here I was lucky to have signal first time since Sunday. After one hour of trying and trying, the phone suddenly buzz. It was my fiancé breaking the news: "We survived despite all sins people of Kashmir have committed, despite our ego, despite our ill-gotten money, despite murdering our ecology, despite killing our city, despite exploiting poor, despite shunning culture, tradition and god-fearing values. We are alive!!" People, infact, survived for their quirky habits: Unnecessary halls at third floors and unwanted hoarding of food items for months together, besides the divine hand.
( Ashiq is Srinagar-based principal reporter of Hindustan Times)