Kashmir Floods-2014: ‘There was Nothing Important than Being Alive’

Behind the DAV School Jawhar Nagar lay half a dozen houses in rubbles. The lane connects with the paediatricianDrAltafHussian’s clinic and hosts many minority houses along with few Muslim families.

Most of the houses situated in this lane are damaged—they are either razed to ground or some portions of the buildings are standing in clipped form—independent of any support. They give a look as if the angry crowd has stripped people haphazardly. The scattered household items around the area reveal tales of manifest destruction. Jawahar Nagar is one of few government colonies that exist (or perhaps existed) in Kashmir and one of the earliest along with ShuhtraShahi and Karan Nagar. All the three government colonies are today skeletal.

The posh locality of Jawahar Nagar is low-lying area situated near to the flood channel and river Jhelum. Jawahar Nagar now is a smote place. Today it is an eerie area. House after house are lying scattered with their posh essentials on the roads.

As I entered the Jawahar Nagar locality sifting through the rubbles only few men are visible. The place where honking never stopped is today a desolate one. Jawahar Nagar is screaming for help, wailing for itself and perhaps sowing the seeds of death of this place.

I was observing the place and thinking how did people save themselves from the devastating floods of September 2014. Natives rescued people gallantly but one has to survive first to be rescued. The houses that were made in Kashmir during the 60s well upto 80s were constructed of brick plastered with mud or one mud brick was placed side by side to the baked brick. This way Kashmiris believed their houses were safe from earthquakes.  The last time Jhelum exploded in wrath and ravaged city was recorded in 1903. This time the wrath of Jhelum was most severely felt in the urbane areas.

While inspecting the damaged houses, I met Nazir Ahmad Bhat, a retired banker.  He says: “On 7th September as the flood waters began to submerge the area we started to pack up things to the second floor and then toward third storey as the water level kept on rising.” Nazir along with his family had moved to the third storey and were waiting for the rescue. At that time, Nazir had 5 more family members inside the house and his son’s friend.

Across the wall, his neighbouring family headed by Attar Singh had 21 members residing there. “We thought water level would not rise more than 4 feet. My grand daughter’s scooter was on the road. I asked one of my brothers to bring that inside the house so that it can be saved,” said Attar. The family consisting of 22 members moved toward one storey after another until they reached to the attic.

Attar’s family had 10 children along with them while as Nazir had one granddaughter of 2 years in age and one teenage daughter. Now both the families were stuck in their attics. Both of them were unaware what was happening around them.

 

The thuds

In the evening of September 07, one of the brother’s of Attar peeped out from his window and saw a family moving out from their house in the corner of the lane and heading toward their neighbour’s house. “As the family waded through the chest level waters neighbours in the vicinity clapped unanimously. As they reached toward other house I heard the first thud. It was the house of the family that had successfully moved to another,” said Gurjit, one of the brother’s of Attar.

The house numbers marked from 426 onwards in the lane, as if waiting for the signal, started to collapse—some front on, few on rear side and other houses got halved in two unequal sizes.

The 22 members family of Attar and Nazir’s 7 members were praying and trying not to pay any heed to the thuds.

“Then,” says Attar’s daughter-in-law, “we heard the fearful sound. We knew our building was going down. We were not knowing which portion of the building was safe for us but we clicked together at the top last end—where fortunately we had a concrete washroom constructed.”

At the washroom they had two buckets of water normally reserved for cleaning purposes. While Attar and his family were in shock of seeing their home going down front on one of the ladies fainted and oozed blood through nose.

“We heard the shrieking voice of our neighbours who were calling my son Dr Shoaib,” recalls Nazir. “They asked for help and medicines. Before Shoaib could render any help all the members of our household begin to watch the lady from the window of the attic. My son threw the medicine from the window toward their family,” says he.

“Next thing I remember was a judder. My house had collapsed from all sides barring the 6×6 attic room which we had occupied owing to the fainting of our neighbour. We were stunned. Her momentarily concussion saved our lives,” Nazir says while sitting in front of his wrecked house.

There was no hope for both the trapped families.

“In the early morning of September 08 I went down and inspected the second storey of house. I went down through the veranda. I know a little swimming and put my foot on the grill of next veranda which was still intact. The water on the veranda was upto my chest level. While inspecting the strength of the remaining portion of the house, I could see bubbles emanating there. I knew danger is lurking.”

Nazir was not disheartened. He was looking for a way out. But there was nothing to which he could clutch on.

“While wading through waters at the veranda I saw two ladders. I grabbed them and asked my daughter to hold them without knowing why I am doing it,” says Nazir.

That afternoon Nazir’s nous told him to join both the ladders and he prayed they are long enough to reach the annexe of Nirmal Singh, their neighbour. As he prepared the ladder and pushed it toward the annexe, Nazir had eerily feeling that it has not got locked at the other end.

“It was parlous walkbut I moved resolutely. As I was crossing on those ladders I was thinking if I fell down there was no way of being saved. The tail end of the ladder and the start of annexe excited me that I wanted to jump from there on.”

“I held the ladders and tied them properly. All the members were able to traverse. Now I felt we are at least safe for few days. We were now in the annexe but had no exit point. ”

But what about the two-year-old grand daughter, how was she able to traverse the ladder. “I tied my grand daughter on the back of my 12 year old daughter and told her not to walk on the ladder but to crawl forward. She did it successfully,” Nazir says without any sense of achievement.

In the day they were able to see people and communicate with them. It was the night that give them jitters.

 

The huanting silence

September 08 night was refusing to pass away. Cold, numb and bland Nazir had no energy to calm his daughter and granddaughter. Throughout the night his married daughter (who had taken refugee after her in-laws house was submerged in Lasjan) and her child were sobbing, yelping and seeking forgiveness from Allah.

They spend the night on the rooftop of annexe with only one shawl as bedding. “That shawl was wrapped to my grand daughter to protect her from cold night.” Then the rain started.  “It seemed the end of times for us,” Nazir says.

“I along with my son threw our mobile phones in the floodwaters. I had a pouch which I also put in the water. There was nothing important than being alive. Then we cuddled together on the veranda in the hope that if we die, at least people will have no problem in identifying us.”

“We asked our family members to pray one last time and seek forgiveness from Wahi Guru. If it was going to rain for few more hours we were sure our death is certain. Our children would scream and ask in their innocence: ‘Lord! Are you there or just watching us for entertainment’.  Then WahiGuruji heard our prayers and rains stopped,” the Singh family narrates. As you ask question two to three persons start answering in unison as if to relieve themselves of the burden they had experienced during those days and nights.

During the night, they say, their neighbours will light torches to check whether the remaining portion of ramshackle houses are intact. That would bring some respite in their sagging morale. But they were benumbed to return any gesture. Sleep was refusing to take them in her lap. The stranded people were suspended on building that was on the mercy of water beneath and darky sky above.

 

Thirst and hunger

No matter in what situation humans are, one cannot control thirst and hunger. Although both the neighbouring families said that hunger of adults vanished but they had children.

Water was precious and food was little. So how did they survive?

Nazir had no water. They asked their neighbour for some water. “They gave us two bottles of 2 litres each. My two-year-old grand daughter gulped one and half litre of water. It was a testing time.”

Singh says when the rain started they collected rainwater for drinking purposes. “As our Muslim neighbours asked for water we threw two bottles toward them. For us we had to use washroom bucket water. But that too had to be rationed. We would put water droplets in our mouth and for children water was distributed in bottle caps. When even washroom water became scarce, we used to soak a cloth and polish our parched lips with that,” they recall gloomily.

Nazir sought some food item from his neighbour and they came up with rice and sugar candies (locally called gour). “We had no urge to eat. For children we made few breads and distributed them,” says Attar, who has gold ornament shop at Goni Khan—a fashionable place for middle class women—also devastated by the floods.

 

Rescuing another stranded

During the day rescue was nowhere in sight. They could see NDRF, CRPF and army boats but it was difficult to reach their homes. Army yelled at them that they would throw ropes and then they had to come down. This way, it was impossible for trapped men to reach toward army boats. They had to track through collapsed buildings and there was no guarantee of staid footwork. “The army preposterously told us to throw at least children toward them from third storey so that they can be taken to safety,” one of the brother’s of Attar told me.  The government rescuers then moved toward other stranded people in the area.

Nazir says his neighbour Nirmal Singh was still refusing to leave his inundated house. “My wife yelled at Nirmal to come out and stay at the concrete annexe he had constructed. He managed to reach the veranda of his annexe but got stuck as there was no option to move upwards. It was like hideout where you can enter easily but remain trapped there on. Next Nirmal saw was his house coming down in front of him.”

“I was staying in my home when I heard the shrieks of my neighbours. My house was crumbling. And when the front portion came down I ran toward the backside of the house and waited for the crumbling side to rest. As it rested there I had haunch and moved toward it. At that point the rear side came off. Now,” says Nirmal near his gate that is the only standing thing in the rubble, “I was standing in the middle of the heap with waters beneath. My neighbour called me to come to the annexe side. They told me to scoot lest I get drowned. I looked at the rubble of my house and stepped forward on those things which could hold me. Somehow I made it to the veranda of the annexe.”

Nirmal still had to fight it out. On the veranda Nirmal’s body was still half immersed. He was feeling cold and looking for a way out.

Nazir now had a job on hand. They had to pull up Nirmal otherwise cold waters would paralyse him. But there was no way Nirmal was going to move upwards without any staircase. “We had a shawl and thought of giving it to Nirmal to keep him warm. But that was not a solution. Then I asked my daughter and son to form a human chain while holding the pillar of the annexe. My son told Nirmal to hold fast the shawl so that he can be pulled up.”

It was humongous task to balance on the rooftop and pull up a man. “It is a miracle otherwise it was not possible to pull Nirmal up.”

As I follow the eyes of Nazir he shows me the place wherefrom they had pulled up Nirmal. The roof is bended at that place where from three human beings were pulling fourth human being toward safety. The human will prevails Nirmal is saved. They are now eight people not knowing how will they be rescued.

 

Nature’s call

For two days Nazir’s family defected and pissed in open. Attar’s family members say they had some reprieve as their toilet was functioning at the top of the attic. “But believe me some of our family members did not go to toilet. There was nothing that could be urinated,” Attar’s brother said with smirk.

 

The evacuation

On September 09 morning, on an army boat Nazir saw one of the locals guiding them toward the house of Attar.

However, rescue was not possible through frontal side because of the collapsed structures. The local man guiding the army boat told them to move from the backside.

“Our eyes were stunned on seeing the rescue team. We didn’t wave to them. We were numb to do anything,” says Nazir.

However, the local guide told the rescue team that Attar’s family was the first priority. “At that point,” says Nazir, “the rescue official told the guide: Are they not humans. Do they not need to be rescued?”

“As we landed our foot on the boat through the window the water level was still more than 20 feet,” says Nirmal.

Attar’s extended family was unaware what was going on. In the afternoon the rescue boat returned and took two turns to carry his family to the safety.

Before saying adieu I asked Nazir inanely; did they cry on seeing the land?

“We are still crying,” he says with a poker face.

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—The author can be reached at [email protected]

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