“You will get no cab or hotel in Srinagar right now. There is a relief camp outside, talk to the some army officer there for help,” a BSF jawan tells me at the Srinagar airport after I landed from Chandigarh at 4 pm on September 9. My mobile showing no-coverage sign, I go to the Spicejet counter for help. “Mam, our phones are not working too. You can call somebody back home but not in Srinagar,” the young man at the counter says.
Within half-an-hour of landing in the flooded city, I was marooned like lakhs of others living in Srinagar. After 30 minutes and seeking help from many, including an air hostess from the UAE who had come to look for her parents, I see a girl waving at me. “Are you from the media,” she says coming near. I nod as she adds that a BSF jawan told her another journalist was looking for help.
We tag along and walk to the technical airport of the air force outside, as guided. After seeing our identity cards, the guards let us in.
The Arjun base was swarming with crew from television channels, reporters, anchors and their camera persons, some of them requesting the PROs of the army and the air force to fly their “chips” -- the shots they took during the sorties -- on the special aircraft flying rescued people to Delhi.
I send my first story by narrating it on a satellite phone to the desk in Chandigarh. Nowhere to go, I kept sitting at the base camp well past 10 pm. “Haven’t you tied up with the PRO of the army for your stay here,” asks a TV journalist. I was too embarrassed to admit I expected to get a hotel to stay. Finally, the BSF allows me to stay in its officers’ mess till I made alternate arrangements.
“Mam, please tell your camera person not to take out the camera, they are attacking the media,” the NDRF official who is accompanying us says as we leave to cover Rajbagh on a boat. Deep inside the locality, away from prying eyes of the locals, the photographer takes some pictures. A boat being rowed by some local youth, passes by hurling expletives. “Camera band karo,” one of them shouts.
Another local getting into his house after unscrewing the window to check if there has been a theft, says almost apologetically, “Please, don’t mind their language.” By now, we had learnt the virtue of being low profile and not letting our camera out. But some learnt this the hard way. A reporter from an English television channel, who was with us the next day is heckled by some youth.
“Dubara yahan aayi, toh Jhelum mein phek denge (If you are seen here again, we will throw you in the Jhelum),” they tell her.
Unable to hitch a ride on an NDRF boat on Saturday, we request a boat being rowed by some young locals to take us to Lal Ded hospital, which was still under several feet of water. They let us in but only ask us who are we when we are deep inside the flooded area of Wazirbagh. “NGO helping flood victims,” I tell them, not sure what was coming. But they seemed to know better. When the teenagers sitting in the front reach Amicos Pizza, they shout at a few workers on the building’s roof. “Pizza khilaoge?” They pack the boat with eatables flowing out of homes and shops or dropped by copters...chips, biscuits, football. They row the boat to a house to lift a floating gas cylinder but find it empty. A floating refrigerator of a shop having cans of soft drinks, is tied to the iron railing. As they rescue two locals from a house, one of them asks as he sits beside me.
“Kaun sa channel hai? kya dikhane aaye ho?”
At the BSF guesthouse, the crew of some television channels are almost hysterics as they cannot get sound bytes amid raging tempers. They crib only a few are getting exclusives as they are being escorted by “higher officials”. The coordinator of the National Disaster Management Authority is busy arranging some of these exclusives for the TV channel which has flown a massive dish to air live from Srinagar and three teams of reporters and camera persons.
Placed just outside my room, I can hear the channel repeat outside, “Aapne sabse pehle dekha Aaj Tak pe (You first show it on this channel).” A little offended, one of the BSF officers in the guesthouse tells us, “The BSF too is doing a lot of rescue and relief work but it is the army, air force and NDRF who are getting highlighted.”
Trying to reach Lal Chowk and Dal Lake for two days, I finally manage to get a ride on a BSF tipper to the area on Monday. Both sides of road still submerged under several feet of water, they choose to take the side which some locals standing there have asked them not to.
“Yeh log humein misguide karte hain. Wahi bhejenge jahan phasne ka khatra ho (These people misguide us. They will send us from the side, we can get trapped),” the driver enlightens me. He turns back just before the famous clock tower of Lal Chowk where a crowd is standing. “If we were in civilian vehicle and clothes, we could have taken you there. They may hurl stones,” he adds.
On my flight back home, a young Kashmiri professional travelling with me reasons out the anger against media. “You people kept showing massive relief and rescue operations were underway. For the magnitude of the tragedy, it was too little and too late. I hope it does not further alienate us from this country.”