September 25, 2104
MIR SAAD IMDAD
I was in Kashmir when the flood started. I and my family reached the Srinagar airport on a Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014. Along with us, the continuous torrential rains arrived and stayed on until the afternoon of September 5th, 2014. The rains slackened around the afternoon but picked up speed in the night.
Finally on Saturday evening the rains stopped. We thought the worse was over. Little did we know that the disaster had not yet started. Announcements were made in the Masjid around 4.30 in the morning telling people to evacuate their homes. Unfortunately, as these announcements were being made in a Kashmiri language, a language we don’t understand, we were unaware of it until much later.
We were staying at a hotel in Raj Bagh. The hotel staff, knowing about the red alert had left as soon as the floods started, without informing us. Around 6 a.m. on the 7th of September, Sunday, my mother noticed that water was starting to collect near the hotel. At 7 a.m. my parents woke up me and my brother, saying it was best to leave. Water was flowing towards the hotel. Apparently a dam had broken.
We called our driver to come with the car. A few minutes later, while waiting for the car, we saw walls breaking due to the force of the overflowing water. The water was gushing at an alarming rate. We saw cars that were parked nearby disappear. Within 20 minutes, the water was over the ground floor level. Soon even the first story of the hotel was flooded. I have never seen anything like that in my life. Luckily we were staying in a five-storey hotel, so we rushed to the third floor of the hotel. But there were other bungalows around our hotel of only one or two storeys. My father and brother helped an elderly couple and their servant next door to come into our hotel with the help of a ladder and a rope.
I could hear desperate cries for help from all around us. Little did I know that the next day we were going to be one of those people screaming for help.
Kashmiris responded to this by coming out in their private shikaras to try and rescue people. But the people were too many and the shikaras were few in number. Everyone expected the Government, a government that was newly voted in with all the expectations of making a better future for us, to start sending out help soon. But, alas, no such help came from them. Finally some people on a shikara rescued 12 people from our hotel.
What was further scaring us was the increasing water level! It reached almost 20 feet before it became static. It’s ironic that Sunday was a bright sunny day. When the water started logging, it wasn’t raining! It was such severe rainfall that the dams broke and the water spread all over the city. I could see picturesque mountains and pretty white clouds when I looked outside the window, and brown muddy water with cylinders and garbage floating when I looked down. It was a striking contrast. I could look up at the sky and smile or look at the earth and weep. The choice was mine.
On Monday, the cell phone networks crashed. But in the hopes of contacting someone for help, I was trying to save up my cell phone battery.
That afternoon, unpredictably, the water tanks in the hotel emptied. There were about seven massive tanks in the hotel, but I suppose someone must have inadvertently left one of the taps in the bathrooms of the first floor open before they escaped. As long as we had water, things were okay. But without drinking water, things got difficult.
I started waving a red dupatta of mine, trying to frantically call for help whenever I saw a helicopter pass by. The other people in the hotel were doing the same. An Australian cheerful girl Kripali was screaming on top of her voice for help, saying that if no help came to, at least she might hopefully be seen on the television if one of the news helicopters came close enough. But as we later discovered, the choppers were rescuing people only from one specific hotel wherein the government officials were residing.
We were marooned for almost 36 hours. At 6 p.m. we saw a small air boat coming in our direction. We screamed, begging them to save us. Alhamdulillah, two young men came to help. Haji Sahb, an elderly Kashmiri gentleman, me and my mother jumped into the boat. The people who saved us were local Kashmiris. One of them is a teacher in a medical college and his friend, Mushtaq. On the way, we realized that there was a rupture in the air boat and water had begun to get in. Alhamdulillah, they dropped us at zero bridge safely. We requested them to rescue my brother and father too, but with a punctured boat there was no way to do so. However, they promised us that they will be back the next morning.
We had assumed that the other side of zero bridge was not flooded. We couldn’t have been more wrong. More than half of Srinagar was submerged. There was water on both sides of the zero bridge and the level of the Jhelum river flowing underneath was very high and we were standing there on one of the few dry patches in the city. It was on that bridge that I met Urfila, a young Kashmiri girl, who had lost all her possessions as the flood had reached about three storeys where she had stayed. Someone had rescued her and her sister the previous night and they were anxiously waiting for the rest of her family to arrive. We sat on the bridge, lost on what to do next.
Haji uncle offered to take my mother and me to his daughter’s house at Dal Gate by Shikara. But seeing that we were separated from my father and my brother, my mum insisted we stay on the bridge as it would have been very difficult to come back the next day if we went on the other side. Haji uncle, being the true gentleman, refused to leave us alone. A while later, Urfi’s mother and cousin arrived by boat. The blanket they brought with them was spread on the road, on which we all sat huddled. There were street dogs, cows and rats running around on the street and there we were – in the middle of nowhere.
What amazed me was the attitude of the people – still being positive and trying to make the most of what they had. Happy, that they were alive, young men were joining forces to rescue as many as they could all day. They were brave, fearless and had a never say die attitude. Some of their own families were still missing and yet they were still there, putting the needs of others before their own. In my opinion it is these people and not the army who are real heroes. There was a light which shone deep in the hearts of these men which spread to people all around them – a light of hope.
A bride-to- be had lost seven suitcases of her wedding trousseau, and pretty much everything she owned. Her fiancé lives in Doha and right now she doesn’t even have a passport anymore. She said she wasn’t going to think about that, but focus on rescuing her neighbors who were still marooned.
Some men cooked rice and served it to all of us. Urfi’s 12-year-old cousin encouraged everyone to eat, saying," Marenge bhi toh hum khaana khaake marege!".
Haji uncle tried to find the owners of the cars parked on zero bridge, to request if we could spend the night in any one of them. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find anyone who would let us do so. It was a cold freezing night. The rats were scary. Urfi’s cousin was mischievously suggested breaking the lock of one of the empty cars. To my amazement, everyone agreed and we broke-in two of the cars. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Urfi, Shahneela, my Mum and I huddled together in the backseat of an Indica, while Haji uncle and the Aunty, whose daughters were missing, sat in the front. The lady’s story is heart breaking. Her family had been alerted about the emergency and were planning to leave their house. The lady walked out of the house towards the road thinking that her children and husband were right behind her. When she turned, she saw water gushing into her house and couldn’t see her family. We were hoping they had managed to go to the first story of the house and were safe. The lady had to run in the other direction towards dry land to save her life leaving her family behind. Haji uncle motivated us with inspirational stories from the Quran to keep us going. We repeated duas, over and over, all night. Through this, we heard the news about buildings breaking. Alhamdulillah the night went by.
At 6 a.m. my Mum, Haji uncle and I started looking for a boatman who would be willing to rescue my father, my brother and Haji uncle’s son. Around 7, we saw a shikara rowing in a distance and my Mum waded through water, got into the boat, guided the shikara wala to the hotel and rescued my brother and father. What a relief it was that we were all together again.
An hour later Urfi went to rescue her family with the help of someone and got them back safely. The two of us were so happy. We hugged each other, and for some time all our worries were gone. We waited with Haji uncle till his son arrived, and then started walking towards the governor’s house. We were informed that reaching the Governor’s house was the only way to get to the airport. We had a flight to Mumbai the next day. On our way to the Governor’s house we saw destroyed homes, hundreds of homeless people. There were people who were distributing food and water. We saw no relief from the government yet.
When we reached the Governor’s house after wading through ice cold knee length water, I got the shock of my life. There were over 20k people waiting there. A helicopter came about every 1 hour and carried 25 people. I had thought I would be on the flight home the next day. Now it seemed next to impossible!
We walked all the way back to zero bridge hoping to find a functioning hotel somewhere. We saw a helicopter hovering close to a metro hotel. We climbed up the 4 storey building to reach the terrace. While climbing up the last fleet of stairs, I felt that I didn’t have the strength to do go ahead anymore. I almost collapsed.
Alhamdulillah there were people there who helped me up and carried my bag. The helicopter was airlifting some people from the neighbouring building. I waved out to the army officer explaining that I needed to go to the airport. There were only three people left to rescue in the neighbouring building when some boys came and started pelting stones on the helicopters. I was literally begging them to stop but they were really angry and refused to listen. The helicopter flew away without us. I was livid at those boys. But, as I think about it now, I feel their anger was justified. Till then, the government aided VIPs and tourists while there were Kashmiri children dying on rooftops.
We were thinking of spending the night at that otel. It was still under construction and quite messy, but it was our only option. Alhamdulillah we didn’t have to stay there as we met Tanveer bhai. Tanveer bhai goes for fishing as a hobby and so he had a boat. He had got his boat to zero bridge to rescue his uncle. He couldn’t find his uncle but he saved a lot of lives in the process. He had met my Mum and me the previous night. Mushtaq bhai was with Tanveer bhai, who asked if I had found my brother. I was too tired to answer. I simply pointed at my brother. He told me that he couldn’t sleep the previous night because he was worried about us. Tanveer bhai offered to take us to his uncle’s house where we could spend the night. I was so touched. I didn’t know that people like that existed. I was amazed at the warm welcome we received at his uncle’s home, considering that we didn’t even know them. Alhamdulillah they were kind to us. Uncle Yusuf, Aaliya Baaji, Suraiya aunty, Jehangir uncle, Taariq uncle and his wife, Farheen went out of their way to make us feel at home. We stayed on at their place for three days.
On 11th September, Thursday, the government started providing relief. They were throwing packets of maggi and tomato rice to people who had no water to drink or stoves to cook. What were the children stuck on rooftops going to do with a packet of maggi? Eat it raw? Or mix it with the dirty flood water and have it? Further, the relief food was carelessly thrown directly into the flood water.
On Saturday morning Yusuf uncle and Taariq uncle dropped us at the helipad. A helicopter dropped us near the airport. All flights to Mumbai were full that day. With abundant difficultly my father got us tickets to Delhi. Alhamdulillah from Delhi it was a smooth ride. Now I’m back home, safe and sound. But my heart still beats for the people of Kashmir.
I’m writing this for Haaji uncle who repeatedly told me I have to write the events of these days in my dairy, and for Shahneela, who asked me to tell people their tale. For Aaliya Baaji, who requested me to tell others about their plight.
The people of Kashmir need help. The bitter cold winters will start soon. Lakhs of people are homeless. They’ve lost all their clothes, woolens, blankets. They need our help.
I don’t have a great many expectations from the government. But I do feel we, the common folk, can make a difference. If you can go to Kashmir once things get a bit better and the airports start functioning normally, and help the people in any way, it would be great. If you can contribute in the flood relief funds, that’s nice too. But in the latter case, be very careful as it’s possible your money may not actually reach the people who need it. The locals told me that gulf countries have sent money to Kashmir in the past. Sadly, the funds have been used by corrupt officials to beautify their own homes.
People tell me that after what happened I will probably never want to go back to Kashmir. But the truth is I can’t wait to go back there. I had gone there hoping to be blown away by its natural beauty. Instead, I met some wonderful people whose kindness blew me away. I don’t know if I will ever meet these people again. They will stay in my prayers as long as I’m alive.
(MIRSAAD IMDAD is from Bandra, Mumbai)