This Article is From Sep 12, 2014

In Srinagar, I Waited Four Nights for a Boat

(Arshad Rasool Zargar is Associate News Editor, NDTV 24x7)

I was on an early morning shift in our Delhi office on Sunday when the intensity of the floods in Srinagar became apparent. The Jhelum River had breached embankments during the night and the waters had entered several parts of Srinagar. I called my parents. They sounded terrified but were somehow sure, like many others, that the water would not deluge their neighbourhood in Batmaloo. So when I asked them to move out straight away and board with friends or relatives, they insisted that they were safest where they belonged.

As more pictures came in, some of them from our correspondents in Srinagar, it became tough to stay calm. For the next few hours, it was a struggle to work while watching the devastation of the  places I have grown up in. At the end of my shift, I flew to Srinagar.

By the time I landed in Srinagar on Sunday evening, all phone networks were down. And the whole area outside the airport was flooded. It was totally cut-off from the city. I could not  contact my wife in Delhi nor anyone in Srinagar. A J&K Police team was kind enough to let me in their minibus, which took two hours to make what is usually a 10-minute journey. We proceeded through small by-lanes and jammed roads to reach a bridge near Batmaloo. There was a dead-end ahead. I could see from the bridge that the water was rushing ferociously into the nearby locality. It took about 45 minutes for the water to cover the ground floors of the area my parents live in. Some people had managed to leave their homes and  reach the bridge. But the ones left behind were clinging to windows, crying for help. It was already dark and the sight of families held hostage, the roar of crashing water filling the air, was overwhelming.

We had to spend the night on the bridge. I had still made no contact with my parents. By midnight, the first army rescue team reached the spot with two boats and started to evacuate people. After that, army teams arrived every couple of hours. By the crack of dawn on Monday,  there were vicious battles over who would get to use army boats first. The soldiers kept reiterating their priority was to rescue women and children first, but nobody was prepared to wait. There was desperation, anger, chaos. Rumours that houses had collapsed made things worse. I waited all day but didn't get a boat to reach my parents.

By Tuesday morning, the Army teams at the spot had rescued thousands from the area I was camping in. People like me, waiting for news of Batmaloo, grabbed those who had arrived on army boats to ask for information about their relatives. "Did you hear any cries from my house?" an old woman asked a rescued neighbour. With phone communications down,  any information was invaluable. In the evening, I managed to hop on to an Army boat. But it couldn't reach my place because it had to turn around after we encountered women who needed to be rowed out. 

Wednesday saw more army and private boats coming in. Some aid agencies and volunteer groups sent their boats and equipment. People also crafted make-shift rafts using empty plastic bottles, plastic drums, rubber tubes and wooden boards. The shortage of boats fed the anger of people the most. But the calamity was of such magnitude that even thousands of boats would fall short. The Army had to face the brunt of the anger. I spent three days with Major S S Negi and his team of the J&K Light Infantry regiment, which was at the forefront of the rescue operations in Srinagar area. He spent long hours without food and displayed unmatched restraint in dealing with the people's anger.

I finally managed to get an Army boat on Thursday evening to reach home. I found my parents there, hungry and cold and without any electricity. The army brought us to safety. They remain shaken. Their trauma is visible. I  know other families faced worse. 

I witnessed squabbles in the first few hours when I arrived in Srinagar.  But later, I also saw how the water that cascaded through my home town turned into a uniting force for many.  Strangers from far-off areas came with vehicles loaded  with food and other items. It was only humanity and Kashmiriyat at its best. That spirit will be tested in exacting ways as we try to rebuild the state.  We will need support, not just from each other, but from the rest of India.

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