Jammu and Kashmir is faced with hydra-headed problems …Now Torrential Rains
Sonam Zora was restless all through his flight to his home town Leh and as the plane landed at airport, he looked outside with eyes open in disbelief with the scene of devastation hanging his head down in despair, he sipped water and asked for at least a half a dozen water bottles from the airhostess, which he carefully packed inside his bag.
“Is this the same heaven that I had left only a week back, the broken bemoaning man muttered in Ladakhi. Similar was the plight of young man Tsering, who had flown from Jammu only to find that the deadly cloud bust has almost wiped out all his family.”
“This is not the place, I know, this is worse than a graveyard, shrieked Tsering on seeing flattened houses, some of them under slush and mud with no visible signs of their existence even.” Bemoaning the destruction, Tsering sobs: “Where are my people, houses and all we had. Where should I go?”
Only few days back, Leh was humming with life, tourists dotting the roads, hotels occupied and people counting on more prosperity, but the nature’s fury on June five midnight changed the entire story of the Leh, which was all blossoming.
Now, it presents a desolate look, with smashed houses, broken cars, foul flesh smell and debris — tell-tale evidence of ravage caused by flash floods and mudslides.
The death count till the filing of this report has gone above 230 with several still missing, feared they might have died. Some say that the number could be double as the debris are cleared and the contacts with remote areas are established.
For all those who have visited Leh’s favourite old town market, now all flattened.
“I just heard a deafening sound over my head and after that I can’t recollect anything,” said a woman. She has not found anyone in family alive so far. With her bruised face, she has pierced every nook and corner of debris of her erstwhile house for her two children, she along with her husband managed to save their daughter fighting through the sudden flush of water and mud.
An Indian Army Lieutenent, fresh from Indian Military Academy got posted in Leh three months back is yet to cope with the biting reality of life of an army personnel. The man who has seen devastation in front of his eyes as he was out for a smoke in the verandah of his shack at that hour of night when cloud bust followed by flash floods stuck the exotic Leh.
“I have been unable to sleep for the past four days, everything was destroyed in less than 20 minutes, it was raining hard and before anyone could understand, hell broke lose and since then as I close my eyes to sleep, the cries and shrieks of victims and helpless people pierce, I am so scared to sleep and taking help of a doctor to overcome my dilemma,” said the young officer.
And five kilometers from Leh at Choglamsar village, everything has perished. There were hemlets of labourerers, who come to Ladakh from different parts of country as Bihar, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana since they are paid wages three times what they would normally get but floods have not distinguished between them and the locals with many of them dead. Many people are still buried in the village as the survivors have said that they have seen the arms and other body parts of many sniffer dogs have been trying to locate bodies, but progress has been slow. The weather is also playing havoc.
Pradeep Kumar has lost his uncle and is stuck up at Leh while the body of his uncle has been flown to his home town in Rajasthan as he has no money to board a flight and the land route is yet to be restored.
Roads have simply disappeared, bridges and culverts were washed away in torrents of rain and where once stood the houses and shops, now run the canals bubbling with water.
The cries, shrieks and tears have been taken over by battle of survival with mothers clinging on to children with pain of losing other siblings.
As the Indian army soldiers clear the debris and dig out dead after three days of floods, the number of crowd hoping to find anyone alive has thinned and now what people hope for is to atleast find the bodies to give them a decent funeral.
“My house is buried under a flowing river, Leh has never had history of such rains and now we have water and water everywhere. It seems there were no houses here, but there were hundreds. You will need a lot of machinery and men to dig out bodies and it will take weeks,” said Tchering who has lost his wife and son.
Barely able to walk, the aged Dolma is outside the makeshift mortuary at Leh hospital, which itself exhibits the picture of devastation to identify the bodies of his son and daughter-in-law. Wiping tears from her wrinkled face, she continues to utter Buddhist prayers, looking up in sky with bare soiled hands and bruised face.
She had attempted to dig out some sign of life or even death of her lost ones consoling her two grandchildren.
As battered Leh tries to limp back to life rescue workers are facing a different kind of mountainous challenge—that of damp, muddy slush, sometimes as high as a three-storey building—as parts of mountains caved in during the cloudburst, accumulating as high as 25ft of slush at some places, making rescue work more difficult.
Ladakh’s pride—the river Sindh—is now its river of sorrow as horror stories pour in from Leh and its surroundings—of people dying, homes and livelihoods washed away, collapsed bridges, trapped tourists…
Leh lies at an altitude of 3,500m and quite naturally, mountains dominate the landscape. The land is also surrounded by a number of rivers, passes, peaks, valleys and lakes and above all has a strategic position for centuries. Even during the Indus Valley civilisation, it was an important stopover on trade routes between Tibet and China. For the same reason, it is now an extremely important spot since Ladakh shares its borders with neigbours Pakistan and China. There is a military base here and Kargil, where the most recent conflict between India and Pakistan took place, is some 220 km away. The principal access roads include the 434 km Srinagar-Leh Highway and the 473 km Leh-Manali Highway. Apart from the landscape, it’s the drive from Leh to Manali, said to be the second highest motorable road in the world, that is a major draw. The beauty and adrenaline-pumping ride is something that most tourists want to try out. Amid all this devastation, the magical survival of two-year-old Dilden Angmo was a rare case of life amid death. Separated from her mother at the time of the flash floods, Angmo eventually escaped death though badly injured and weak, but she had lived through the worst. United with her mother Dolma, who is also among the injured, had feared the worst for her child.
“A passer-by noticed her and brought her here. We revived the child,” said Colonel Anurag Khanna, commanding officer of the Army Hospital.
Doctors treating her said, she has a hard battle ahead but was stable and they are determined not to let this survival story end in tragedy.
A young mother admitted at the Army Hospital has two missing children. “I can’t remember their names. I can’t recall what happened after the flood struck. It was so horrifying. I don’t know where to go,” said the woman who has forgotten her name, the doctors say she is suffering from partial memory loss because of shock.
Another survivor, Mohammad Suleiman, sobbingly narrates his story of hell, “It was around 12:15 in the night and there was a deafening sound. What happened then, I can’t describe in words. I could only hear screams and noise. I attempted to take my family to a higher ground. But minutes later, gushing water swept his wife and three of his children away. He managed to hold on to his four-year-old son, and clung to a tree trunk till the water receded.
While, everyone credits Indian military with its remarkable job in rejuvenating life in Leh, the force has yet to mourn the death of its 33 soldiers washed away in Turtuk in floods, feared to have gone to Pakistan side held Kashmir. Indian Army Srinagar spokesperson Colonel JS Brar said, “Tragedy struck a Bihar regiment post in Turtuk while we have found three bodies under the debris, the remaining, its feared have been washed away. All efforts are on to retrieve them.”
As the exotic and adventurous locations of Leh are a hot among foreign tourists, the havoc has taken eight lives of foreign nationals, dozens are still missing while over hundred have been evacuated from Zanskar and Batalik sectors by Indian Air Force.
The popular Rancho’s school, which came into fame after it featured in the movie 3 Idiots also suffered devastation in the floods however, all the children of the school are safe. The school that received the British Council for School Environment Award for the ‘most inspiring building globally’ in 2009 shot to fame after it was used to shoot the climax for 3 Idiots. The actor is reportedly keen to help the school recover from the aftermath of damage.
While hundreds of Indian Army and Indo Tibetean Force troopers are rubbing shoulders to clear two land routes to Leh town, relief and rescue continues, it would take probably a few years to clear the scars of the tragedy from the minds and souls of those who have seen it with their open eyes.
By Prakriiti Gupta from Leh