SEEMA MUSTAFA | 12 SEPTEMBER, 2014
Boats to the rescue, too little as thousands remain marooned.
NEW DELHI: Anila Singh and her sister Indira had been in Shivpura, Srinagar for several days trying to fix an old house that belongs to her husband from an old Kashmiri pandit family of the Valley. Next door lived her husband’s 85 year old aunt Rano Rattan who was one of those indomitable women who had refused to let either the insurgency or the authorities of the time drive her away, and continued to stay in her home through the years.
Anila and her sister, like so many others in Srinagar, knew about the floods but felt they were secure in their areas. And on the night of September 6 had retired to bed as always quite oblivious to the looming threat. There were no warnings, no sirens, no announcements by the state government that now claims it had issued all these warnings. “There was not a single loudspeaker pressed into service warning of the impending danger and asking people to leave,” Anila told The Citizen, still traumatised by the harrowing experience that she faced with all the thousands of other Kashmiris.
Her husband, Ranjit, in Delhi received a call at 2am from a person, Shauqat, who delivered them their groceries in Srinagar. He obviously was unable to get through to Anila and so called her husband in Delhi instead. The phone connection was snapped but shortly after their carpenter from Kashmir again called Ranjit saying that a small shop belonging to one Hameeda near their house in Shivpura was under water. And that Anila and her sister should be informed that the area had flooded. Ranjit managed to get through to Anila but again the phone connection permitted him to just get through the one sentence, “the waters are rising.”
Anila went down to find the ground floor flooded within the few hours they had gone to bed. She picked up her phone, money and along with her sister climbed to the attic just above the first floor. The waters were gushing in fast and the two women were worried about their own safety but even more so about their aunt next door. They kept tried to call her through the windows but there was no answer. Shauqat their caretaker was a picture of exemplary calm. He was by their side, refused to leave even when he could have, and brought in a sobering effect on what was clearly a major crisis. As the waters rose, they tried to clamber on to the slippery roof in the dark but eventually settled for standing in the by now ankle deep water in the attic.
Helicopters went by overhead and the three marooned residents shouted and waved. They cannot say whether they were noticed but after several hours---indeed it seemed a lifetime---an Army boat came by. They shouted out and the Army Major with six soldiers in the boat asked them to identify themselves, and helped them into the boat. “We were on the rooftop and even so we just stepped into the boat, the waters were so high, and fierce,” Anila said. The soldiers then went to look for their aunt and kept diving in until they found her, she was dead. “This appeared to be the first casualty in the area and the soldiers were very upset as well, but they gave her so much respect in death, and despite the freezing waters refused to give up until they had found her,” Anila said. The jawans were shivering with the cold but this boat then went on to rescue at least 16 other persons, singling out the old, the ill and the children as the first option.
“It was so terrible because all over people were on their rooftops, with the waters rising, and screaming to be evacuated. They must have sent other boats back but at that time it was so terrible to have to move on as there was no place left,” she said.
The Army cantonment itself was by this time under water with those evacuated being taken to a spot that was a little higher and hence not flooded. There were ten persons to a room, with drinking water, food and gas in very short supply. The Army that was working day and night, Anila said, itself had no food at that point in time and was making do with some rather indifferent khichri. Meals were being cooked only twice a day to save on gas. There were no medicines available at all, no blankets with food and drinking water itself being a major scarcity.
Anila corroborated what all Kashmiris have been saying. Except for the Army there was no other government agency on the ground. “I do not know what the government is saying now but even though we were amongst the last of the areas to be hit by these floods there was not a single warning issued by the state authorities, no attempt to evacuate anyone, and clearly no assessment of the situation. I am so angry with them as if they had issued warnings and mobilised rescue teams at the very beginning a great deal of this trauma for the people could have been averted,” she said.
Anila’s story is one of tragedy because of the death of their aunt. As she said, “we just hope she died of a heart attack before the waters took her. And we try to find relief in the fact that she died in her own home, in her own city, as she always wanted to,” Anila said.
But it is also a story that mirrors the reality of Jammu and Kashmir today. The close bonds between the Kashmiri Muslims and the Kashmiri Hindus despite attempts to communalise the situation by certain political parties and vested interests. “We were saved because of the phone calls made to my husband by our Kashmiri men who were just working in our house, not even relatives. Otherwise we might not have lived, for by the time we woke up the house would have been flooded,” Anila said.
It also speaks of the complete inefficiency of the state government and its inability to cope with the disaster. “They did nothing,” Anila says, “not a thing.” And now like all others she is worried about the aftermath. “You cannot even see the houses, its all submerged. The scale of the damage is so high, this government that cannot even issue a warning to its people, how will it tackle this gigantic task of relief and rehabilitation, we just do not know,” she said.
It also speaks of the heroic efforts by the Army that like a professional institution is working day and night to rescue the people. The task is far above what the Army itself can manage, hence the categories of priority that have generated some anger in the Valley. But even so the task has been tough, and judging from the manner in which the soldiers on the boat in which Anila was rescued, the approach was professional and not devoid of sentiment. The soldiers were upset about the death of the old aunt, as they were about their inability because of the lack of resources to rescue all they passed on the way. The Major had to keep reminding them to evacuate the old, and the sick first as the boat manouvered its way through the rooftops, electric cables and trees.
It also speaks of the dire need for relief in the form of drinking water, medicines, food and blankets. The waters are freezing as winter is around the corner. Largescale disease is being predicted with The Citizen receiving calls now for not just evacuation, but for drinking water. “We can wait if we have to, but we need water desperately,” the callers said.
The Kashmiris themselves have been heroic in bringing out trapped families. They have worked together as a team, with young men in particular braving the torrential waters to bring relief and help to the trapped people. Calls for relief material have already gone out, although so far there is little to indicate that the governments at both the centre and the state have started assessing and looking at the relief required from this time onwards. Political parties are also silent, although several voluntary organisations have started holding meetings in Delhi as well to collect the necessary supplies for the devastated people of the state.