SRINAGAR: Sixty-year-old Nazir Ahmad Dar sits in distant corner of a classroom in Girls Higher Secondary School Hazratbal here.
Shadows conceal wrinkles on the face of shabby looking, bearded Dar. He leans against a pile of mattresses and quilts behind him, frowns, and then sighs. Consumed in some thought, he is almost unmindful of Jana, his middle-aged wife sitting next to him.
“This is all we have now,” he says, looking around in the classroom.
Signs of the last lecture delivered here are still visible on the blackboards placed on the opposite walls of the classroom, which now resembles a store-house than a place of study.
Half-filled jars of spices are decorated on the little shelf below the blackboard near the door. And close-by, Dilshada, Dar’s young daughter-in-law, is preparing dinner on an obsolete kerosene-stove. Gunny bags containing rice and coal are stacked in the other corner.
“We are 14 people living in this single room. We cook in this corner, sleep in that corner, and you can see our leftover belongings are scattered everywhere in the room,” Dar says, and smokes his hookah as if to lend tobacco flavour to the air that otherwise smells of kerosene coming out from the stove.
The old couple and its sons’ once-nuclear families have been living in this classroom ever since a devastating fire late last month reduced their houses to ash. Here, they survive on blankets, stoves, utensils, and rations donated by various agencies, waiting for the government’s promised help to arrive.
A mysterious fire on the night of December 30 destroyed the entire Dobighat locality of Hazratbal. Thirty-two fishermen families—the locals put the number of victim families as 52—lost their houses, boats, fishing nets, and almost everything that belonged to them.
The government shifted them into two local Girls and Boys higher secondary government schools. For three days following the devastation, food for the victims came from the paramilitary forces involved in the rescue work. But later, the help as well as the government officials vanished, according to the victims.
“The ministers and officials all visited us and gave statements in media that we would be provided all possible help, but it was all a lie. We have been dumped here like cattle without any assistance from the government whatsoever,” says another victim Wasim Ahmad.
Ahmad stays with his wife and a kid in a room adjacent to Dars. His living space is shorter with school’s steel-wardrobes on one side and the family’s belongings on the other.
“Government had announced 25 kg free rice for each victim family, but at the ration depots we were given only 12 kg. The officials there told us that they don’t have orders to give us 25 kg rice,” Ahmad says, taking out a half consumed bottle of edible-oil from under a curtain.
“They gave us these 2 kg edible oil packs, and later a minister announced on TV that each family here was provided 5 kg packs of cooking oil.”
Around 24 of the affected families are accommodated in the girls higher secondary school; the rest are putting up in boys higher secondary school. Owing to shortage of space, many rooms are being shared by many families.
Shortly after the inferno, Kashmir Valley witnessed a heavy snowfall. The temperature dropped to sub-zero levels, making survival even more difficult for the victims.
The blankets that came as donation from private agencies have been too short to fully cover the cemented floor of each room and too thin to keep off the cold. And water in the washrooms has been freezing cold.
“No one among us has had a bath (since the fire incident) because the water in the washrooms of this school has been freezing cold,” says Abdul Rehman, who lives in one of the classrooms with his parents and wife.
“These blankets you see were donated by private agencies,” he said pointing at the checkered blanket spread on the floor of a room. “You can imagine how difficult it is for us to live in this bone-chilling weather.”
Rehman had been in the hospital attending to his sister-in-law who had had a miscarriage a day before the inferno. On learning about the mishap, he rushed home and attempted to save the valuables inside the house, but all in vain.
“I had left home in a track suit and that is the only thing which could be saved. Everything else in the house was burnt down,” he said.
The fate of the victims, however, hangs in balance with the government apparently in no urgency to relocate the victims until the process for their long term rehabilitation is undertaken.
If the recent official announcement is to be believed, the divisional administration has been asked to prepare a “comprehensive report” for “adequate compensation” to the victims even before the pre-fabricated huts have been constructed for them.
“The administration has been directed to prepare a comprehensive report about the damages/losses so that adequate compensation can be given to the victims. The Divisional Commissioner Kashmir has been asked to construct pre-fabricated huts to accommodate these affected families,” the Minister for Rural Development and Panchayats, Ali Mohammad Sagar, had announced when he visited the area last week.
Till then the victims will have to suffer?