SRINAGAR: In densely-populated Housing Colony at Bemina here, things were at peace early Saturday (September 6) morning after a group of 12 local boys had managed to plug pipes and drains of the nearby flood channel.
But water started to spill over banks of the flood channel close to 6:45 am, inundating the lawns of the houses. Soon, banks of the flood channel were breached. In about half an hour, the locality was under not-less-than three feet of water.
In multistorey homes, the families took refuge on the top floors, but the smaller houses offered no space for shelter to the residents who were trying to run away from water. Situation started to turn grim; chaos replaced the peace.
To rescue the trapped populace, the youths regrouped with will alone on their side. They included Vikas Qayoom, Waseem Khan, Zahoor Khan, Umar Khan, Umar Ayoub, Arshid Khan, Tariq Sheikh, Owais Qayoom, Yaseen Sheikh, Umar Farooq, Faisal Nazir, and Sheikh Farooq.
“We had nothing with us, but we were eager to help the people. They were our families, relatives, or neighbours trapped in the homes, which were submerging,” the youths told Kashmir Reader.
They arranged nine tyre-tubes of mostly JCBs, and engineered three ‘boats’ by tying together three tubes each. “To our utter relief and disbelief, it worked,” they said.
Water was rising steadily “at the pace of an inch per hour.” But ignoring the growing threat, the youths launched rescue operation, shifting people trapped in small houses to the taller structures using the makeshift boats. And those seeking to flee the area were carried to Bye-Pass. The operation went on till dusk when everyone was tired with the day’s work.
“Water was chest-deep already when we decided to halt the operation. We anchored our boats to an electricity pole near the main road and decided to return home,” they recollected. “But it was too late to turn back.”
With water deep enough to drown a healthy adult, moving around had become more difficult and risky. Everything including the streets and the main road had come under water. Taller houses in the locality were partly submerged and the smaller ones completely.
“We simply couldn’t go back to our homes where our families were trapped,” the youths said. “All communication channels had died down. We had no way to know about our families and they couldn’t contact us either.”
The voluntary rescuers were in need of a shelter themselves. After helplessly waiting at the main road for a while, they stepped into the nearby commercial building, which was locked from outside. They broke the lock of the main door to reach the corridor and located an open room to take shelter in.
“All rooms in the building were locked, but just this room, barely 10×11 feet in size, was open. It had cemented floor and walls, without any furnishing. It seemed an under-construction office of some kind. Short of choices, we went inside the room, and the other families, individuals trapped on the road followed us,” they said.
In a very short while, at least 32 people, including children and women, were cramming the small space. There was no light; food and water wasn’t available either.
“We were sitting almost on top of each other to be able to fit in that small space,” the youths said. “By being in the water all day, our clothes had turned wet. But the heat, generated by presence of so many people inside the room, dried our clothes in no time. All night, we stayed awake listening to the sirens caused by short-circuit in the cars on the main road.
“Near the building, a family, comprised of a couple and its son and daughter, was trapped on top of a partially submerged taxicab. They were screaming for help throughout the night. Their hapless cries of ‘help us, help us’ increased the horror,” they said.
Before dawn, on Sunday, the youths went to terrace of the three-storey building to look for help, but to no avail. Hours later, at around 10 am, they returned to the terrace where a family staying in the three-storey house nearby spotted them.
“Bemina resembled a huge lake. All streets and roads were submerged and deserted; there was not a single soul moving from anywhere,” the youths recollected. “When this family spotted us, we informed it that we are about 32 people trapped in the building. The family was ready to help us.”
The youths and the family coordinated to tie a rope between the house and the building. And then the food and water were sent in.
“They first sent us bottles of water. The bottles were put inside a bag, which we pulled towards us using the rope. The same way, we received cups, biscuit packs, and kehwa. The kehwa was left to cool down first and then put it in a polythene bag for us to have. We poured cold kehwa into cups and served it to everyone in the room. That was our brunch,” they said.
“Later, the family also provided us blankets and candles. And it offered us a bucketful of turmeric rice for dinner,” they added.
With candles for lighting, night was less dark, but the people in the building had to stay empty stomach because there was no washroom available.
“Everyone just had handful of turmeric rice because we didn’t have a washroom in case anyone needed it,” they recollected. “We spent the night awake, occasionally listening to each others’ stories and checking the time every now and then. Every time there was silence for a while, someone would suddenly ask for time and be heartbroken to know that only five minutes had passed since we last checked our watches. We just wanted the night to end.”
On Monday forenoon, the youths revisited the terrace to look for help, but to no avail. They could only see the family trapped on the taxicab sobbing.
“Two of our friends, who knew swimming, risked their lives to swim to the taxicab and carry the family into the building. The family comprised of the taxicab driver Khalid, his wife, and their two children,” they said.
The day was spent waiting for help and in receiving supplies from the house. But with more people added to it, the room had become further insufficient for a comfortable stay. For more space, the youths broke open an adjacent room, which was office of one Farooq among them. The women and children were shifted to this suitably-furnished room.
“Khalid carried a blanket with him. We gave it, and the sheet that the family had provided us, to the women and children. With more space, things were certainly better now,” they said. “But we were still scared of the night. And we still couldn’t afford to have more food.”
The following day, Tuesday, the youths stuck to what had become the routine—visit the under-construction terrace, looking for help. Till noon, no help seemed coming until army boats started arriving in the area.
“Seeing the boats, we and everyone in the buildings-in-sight started shouting for help. Rather, we were pleading army for help, but they went straight towards the Tattoo Ground and returned with rescued soldiers on board.
“They did several rounds, ignoring our pleas. We were so pissed off that we decided to pelt stones at them. We told them ‘if you don’t want to rescue civilians, don’t come through here again or we would throw stones at you.’ And then they didn’t re-appear in the area to carry out their selective rescue,” they said.
Seeing the army’s “selective recue” and the receding water level, the youths decided to help themselves.
On Wednesday, they were able to walk up to their boats tied to the pole. From among the youths, a group of three men including Vikas, Tariq, and Zahoor, who knew how to swim, was identified to go inside the residential colony to fetch supplies.
“They brought rice, kerosene, kerosene-stove, cooking oil, spices, milk packs, and utensils,” the youths said.
The labour was divided. While the youths brought the supplies, the ladies were asked to cook using the kerosene stove. But washroom was still to be arranged.
“At the terrace, we found open end of a pipe that was coming from the lower floors. We guessed that it was the bathroom pipe meant to be part of the to-be-constructed washroom on the terrace.
“We used the bricks stocked on the terrace to make a commode-like structure around the pipe. We pulled closer to it the water tank that was placed at a distance. And then we used the damaged advertising hoardings to fence the structure. Our makeshift washroom was now ready,” the youths explained.
With supplies and facilities at hand, the building was now a better shelter. But rather than staying idle, the youths decided to re-start the rescue and relief operations.
The youths divided themselves into three teams, which worked in shifts. Each team, on its turn, went inside the residential colonies to help the families trapped in the homes.
“We went inside the colony to get list of the supplies required by the people. The list was carried to the local grocer, who was running his shop in the second-storey of his house, to get the supplies. We also visited our families to see if they were alive,” they said.
“At a later day,” they continued, “we were able to see another side of army’s selective rescue. While we were involved in relief work in the Housing Colony, we spotted an army boat moving in towards the house in which Bihari labourers were staying. They (army men) were saying to each other ‘save the Biharis and leave Kashmiris who have enough food and supplies’.”
Five days later, as the water level on the main road had reduced significantly, the victims-turned-rescuers evacuated the families trapped in the building. They were carried to Bye-Pass wherefrom they could reach to safety.
“Our relief operations went on till the next week. We didn’t go to our homes, but stayed in the building till need for relief and rescue work was less. It was an experience we will never forget,” the youths said.