Letter to an unknown Kashmiri
The stories and images coming out of flood ravaged Kashmir have been harrowing ones even for the observer. We watched with anguish as your land was laid waste by the flood waters. We were not among those who rushed over to assist you in person. But do not think that we were therefore indifferent to your suffering.
We saw the devastation that took place when the waters roared across your villages. In Gulzarpora you, Fayaz Ahmad Wani, Political Science lecturer, went with others to the mosque at 1 o’clock to pray for the safety of your village. The waters surged in while you prayed. When you left the mosque an hour later there was water everywhere and your world had been shattered. You had to look on as your two storey house collapsed taking down everything you owned including clothes and food supplies and even your books. Tears trickled down your face as you told the reporter your story. Some of us wept with you.
With a heavy heart we witnessed the horror of this year’s floods. Disaster came without warning when raging floods swept away scores of villages in South Kashmir. We saw the abandoned women and men who waited for days without food and shelter. We saw the drowned orchards where the apples and the apricots had been ripening in the trees and the fields where until recently the grain stood ready for harvesting. You said that overnight your fortunes had plunged into the abyss. Only yesterday you were looking forward to gathering your apples and harvesting your crops. You rejoiced as you anticipated the season of plenty. Today the specter of starvation stares you in the face.
Srinagar too was not to be spared. In the state capital the pitiless waters surged to a height of 20 feet and transformed the bustling city into a lake. We grieved as state buildings and houses and shops went under water, as trees toppled over and vehicles became submerged. Mudasir Ahmed, you were marooned in an upper storey of your relative’s house from early morning September 7 till the afternoon of September 11. Other families joined you in the building. At 2 am on the morning of the 7th when you realised you were in danger you snatched a few blankets and provisions. With little time to spare you fled to relative safety even as the swirling waters rose around you. A limited stock of provisions was all that 40 people could count on for keeping body and soul together while they waited to be rescued. We shuddered as you listened to the thud of older houses collapsing in your neighbourhood and the cries of people who were still trapped in those buildings. You told Outlook that with every thud you died a thousand deaths. From September 9 onward you saw army choppers and boats and signalled to them. But they were cherry picking victims for rescue. Eventually you were rescued not by the army or the NDRF but a friend who heard you were stranded. Atif managed to get hold of an idle army boat and he came to your rescue. Together you and your friend evacuated everyone in the house.
I thought of Rajbagh colony in Srinagar and the guest house Green Acre where I had stayed last year. With all my heart I hoped that the building had remained intact and that everyone who was there had reached an upper storey in time. I thought of the pains taken by the manager and his staff to ensure that their guest’s stay was a comfortable one. The human mind is oddly prone to dwell on the inconsequential in times of crisis. I remembered the delicious meals that I had eaten in the dining room of the guest house. I thought of the taxi owner/driver Nasser who spoke with pride of Srinagar’s tulip gardens. He advised me to return when the tulips were in bloom. Perversely amid the far graver devastation unleashed by the floods I feared the tulip bulbs had been washed away. I thought of the two women who were sweeping the courtyard of the Hazratbal shrine. When I saw that Dal Lake was encroaching on the shrine I looked for those women amidst the crowd that had taken refuge on the mosque’s terrace. I remembered with regret I had failed to note the name of the friendly driver who took me to the airport at the end of my stay. He asked me to look him up when I returned to Srinagar. Zaroor milkey jana he said. He was not impressed when I mentioned my visit to Gulmarg. He told me he knew places whose surpassing beauty shamed Gulmarg’s picture post card appeal. You will never want to leave once you see those places he said. In justice to him I should acknowledge that my words are only a feeble equivalent of the poetic Urdu that he spoke. As I observe with a heavy heart the unfolding tragedy in your land I know he was at the forefront of the volunteers who improvised boats and rafts and risked their lives in order to rescue people who were stranded in remote areas of Srinagar.
By the end of two weeks the flood waters started to recede and you stepped out to confront the remains of the day. Almost $25 million worth of equipment had been damaged in your hospitals and clinics. Officials estimated it would be months by the time Srinagar’s hospitals were fully functional. Still reeling from the trauma of being marooned for days you were faced with the heart-breaking task of taking stock of the damage to your homes and businesses. Some among you had shifted possessions–clothing, carpets, furniture and kitchenware–to an upper storey of the house. But the water rose to unanticipated levels and they had to watch while their belongings were carried away by the current. Then there were those who simply lost everything they owned. The renowned artist Masood Hussain salvaged seven large format canvases by carrying them to an upper storey of his house. No other item could be saved. In Lal Chowk, the commercial heart of the city, Basharat Peer, author of Curfewed Night, noted that the fortunes of hundreds of families—bales of cloth, piles of books, sacks of spices, twisted electronic gadgets, boxes of medicine—were scattered by muddied pavements. Manzoor Alam, owner of one of Srinagar’s largest bookstores, told Peer that he had lost his carefully curated shelves on contemporary history and politics and everything else in his collection. And Qazi Mohammad Yahya, you contemplated with a grim face ruined pashmina shawls and once gorgeous hand knotted carpets in a showroom that had been filled with beautiful and costly merchandise. You told the AFP reporter that the remorseless deluge had carried away 35 years of your earnings.
The loss extends to your artistic and cultural heritage. In Srinagar Museum an exquisite shawl depicting the map of the city has been damaged along with other treasures. The shawl was woven over a period of 27 years by a famous Kashmiri artisan more than 150 years ago. About 10 percent of the manuscript collection in the Cultural Academy has been affected by the flood. In Rajbagh, the childhood home of Kashmir’s iconic poet Agha Shahid Ali lies submerged. It is feared that hundreds of his documents, photographs and books have been destroyed. The poet died in 2001 of cancer. Sadly we recalled that he used the metaphor of a flood to convey the spirit of the years of armed struggle:
Freedom’s terrible thirst, flooding Kashmir,
is bringing love to its tormented glass,
Stranger, who will inherit the last night of the past?
Of what shall I not sing, and sing?
Unlike the tragedy brought about in the nineties by the metaphorical flood of Agha Shahid Ali’s poem, today’s tragedy has been precipitated by an actual flood.
There’s no point in prolonging this bleak catalogue. It’s better to move on. It’s human to seek out a ray of hope in the darkest of times. In the midst of our sorrow we found hope in the heroism and resourcefulness, in the courage and dedication of the volunteers who risked their lives to rescue those who were trapped in remote parts of the city. Observers noted that the most unlikely objects were turned into the means for rescuing people and saving lives. The top was cut off a plastic water tank and turned into a boat. Empty petrol barrels tied together with rope became a raft that the volunteer Mudabir Jaleel used to rescue hundreds of people from the most desperate parts of the city. Wooden coffins stored in mosques were converted into boats by some volunteers. While the Kashmiri state abdicated its function, ordinary Kashmiris took matters into their hands and braved the current to relieve their brethren. The first wave of volunteers set an example that others followed. Shujaat Bhukhari, editor of Rising Kashmir, wrote that he saw the volunteers going about their work when he went to save his relatives. He accomplished his objective and inspired by the selflessness that he saw all around went on to make rescue his mission for the next eight days. He was surprised to see that even those whose homes were under water were out there rescuing people. The devotion and the ingenuity of the volunteers of Srinagar shines through the darkness of the tragedy that has engulfed Jammu and Kashmir. Their insaaniyat will go down with the defining stories and images of these harrowing times.
We will end this letter now. Dear friend, we are writing to tell you that we share your anguish in your hour of despair. Please do not think that this outpouring of sentiment is intended to mock your misery. We find it difficult to reconcile ourselves to the suffering that has been inflicted on the people of Jammu and Kashmir. But how can the unscathed comprehend even a fraction of your trauma. We know our sorrow is futile and will not restore any part of what you have lost. Today your homes, your villages and your capital city lie in ruins around you. Overnight you have lost your humble or costly possessions and your livelihood. You are leading a refugee’s existence in relief camps–in tents, in schools and in mosques in the few areas of Srinagar that did not go under water. That you will embark on the work of rebuilding and that this terrible tragedy will recede one day into the distance is hard for you to conceive at this moment. The work of picking up the pieces of your life and reassembling them will be long and difficult. But rebuilding will happen however unlikely it seems at this time. Like the inexorable flow of the Jhelum life goes on.
It has been heartening to witness the efforts of those who rallied around you in your hour of greatest need. These groups and individuals will stand with you for the long haul. The ball is now in New Delhi’s court. The state should rise to the occasion and demonstrate to ordinary Kashmiris as well as Indian and international observers that it is capable of functioning in India ruled Jammu and Kashmir by democratic means from which acts like firing on unarmed protesters, forced disappearance, torture, imprisonment without charge and extra judicial execution are automatically excluded. Relief and rehabilitation funds should be released at levels that are commensurate with the magnitude of the calamity that has overwhelmed your land. Above all New Delhi must find immediate solutions for the housing emergency created by the flood devastation. The harsh winter is closing in. No one can survive the winter in a tent.
3. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/20/world/asia/hospitals-in-kashmir- struggle-after-flooding-deepening-a-health-crisis.html