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A tale of rescue from the floods in Kashmir

It was a regular day of reporting for HT’s Srinagar bureau chief Toufiq Rashid. But a call from a friend asking about her parents changed all that. She recounts the harrowing experience she and her family went through.

india Updated: Sep 13, 2014 17:36 IST
Toufiq Rashid
Toufiq Rashid
Hindustan Times

It was a regular day of reporting. 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 on Saturday night last week. 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 asking about the status of water in their locality. As the by lanes appeared clogged, my parents said they might have to leave the next morning. But my father seemed convinced that the water wouldn’t breach the high walls of the MIG Colony at Qamarwari, an upmarket area of Srinagar. I carried on with my work.

At 3am on Sunday, the Jhelum breached its banks near my parents’ house. My parents told me that the water had started gushing into their three-storeyed house. By 6am, all exit points were blocked. My parents, both in their sixties, my sister-in-law and my two-year-old nephew were stranded. By 12pm, the house was under 12 feet of water.

Phones switched off
Panic-stricken, I tried calling officials. 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 CM replied to my SMS at 4.30pm, saying Rajbagh was the priority 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, while I was talking to my father, the call dropped. I tried calling several times before giving up.

Roads turn into rivers
My brother took 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 kilometre away, watching helplessly.

My aunt was carried to the third floor of her house in Rajbagh area. She along with 25 relatives, including eight children, was crying for help. Amid distress calls to officials and reporting the PM’s visit, I got the news that our office was submerged as water had breached Lal Chowk. Meanwhile, my uncle hired a boat to rescue my aunt, refuting claims that Rajbagh was a 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 partly submerged third storey of the house. It was after 12 rounds in the small shikara that the 25 people could be brought out.

Cries still haunt
“It was traumatic. People were shouting for help but we became selfish and just wanted to rescue our own first,” said one of my uncles.

“By the time we finished it was dark and impossible to go back. I have not slept peacefully since then and will never forget those cries for help for the rest of my life,” he said.

While they were rescuing their sister, my uncles’ house too came under the flood waters near the Dal Lake. They, along with my aunt’s family, moved into a dargah on a hilltop, which seemed the only safe option.

Meanwhile, my brother and I sent messages to friends in Delhi asking them to try rescue helplines. The numbers flashed on news channels were not working. I lost contact with the world around Sunday midnight.

Rowing to safety
With no phone and internet, my brother decided to rescue our family himself. Managing to get a strong shikara around 2pm on Monday, he rowed 2km to reach the locality.

“I was the first one to reach area and heard cries for help from all sides,” he said.

My parents decided to stay back and let my sister-in-law and nephew take the shikara as it was small. After the boat reached them a second time, they let the neighbour’s children go. Around 30 people 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.

Relatives to the rescue
By Tuesday, my brother managed to reach our parents at 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, most 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 without the knowledge whether it will reach the readers of the Hindustan Times. Yet I am writing my story with a hope that it will make it through the heartless waters of the Jhelum and strike a chord with the citizens of this country. We can together force the central and state governments to undertake real rescue operations and not just flash promos for television news channels.

(Toufiq Rashid is HT’s Srinagar bureau chief and was stranded in the floods for six days)

First Published: Sep 13, 2014 14:32 IST