Deluge, a narrative from Lelhar

Tavseef Mairaj

It was the forenoon of Friday, 5 September and the network connectivity stands badly affected for the past couple of days. A text message somehow came through, from my mama. I replied, “Agricultural land is already under water and it is advancing.” This would be the last communication between us over the next 4 days before we actually meet.

Our village is a certain casualty to floods, flanked on the North by river Jehlum and on the West by Romush Nallah, which is a tributary of Jehlum. During floods, the remaining two sides become the course for the water flowing through breached embankments from South Kashmir. This leaves us with less chances of avoiding floods, except for the ringed old village which is bound on all the sides by a 12 feet high bund. This time however the water would not just breach this bund but flow over it, in the process inundating even the highest located structures of the village. Those eldest in the village, having never seen flood of such a magnitude, would call it Toofaan-e-Nuh.

A little after the Friday prayers there was a pause in the rains. People deferrred any plans of moving to other places mistaking this pause as a full-stop. People would later blame this pause in the downpour for their non-preparedness. Romush had already breached its embankment before the day-break and its water was already advancing from the south, albeit slowly. All efforts by people to bridge this breach were carried away by the flow. The efforts nearly took lives of a policeman and a villager who were washed away when a portion of the embankment where they were standing on got washed away. They survived. The waters of Romush posed no big a danger to inundate the village. It was Jehlum however which posed a big danger, whose waters were busy in their last push to breach the embankments along its path. It was as if a marauding army like that of Mongols was destroying village after village which came in its way. Come Friday evening, it was confirmed that Jehlum had breached the critical Reshipora bund and it was moving at a rapid pace sweeping village after village along the way. The word used to describe by eyewitnesses to describe the flow was ‘tsunami’. I heard some village elders saying that if water enters the ringed village-main it would reach even those places in Kashmir where people would not even have thought of floods. As we saw later, it did!

By the late night Ishaa prayers, as the muezzin was calling the faithful for prayers, there were other calls being made. Calls to flee. The lucky ones started leaving their houses, their homes. Some would return weeks afterwards, some would only see a pack of bricks when they come back. That night Jehlum wasn’t just a name of the river which, directly or indirectly, provided livelihood to the majority of the village people. That night the name Jehlum sounded like dahshat – terror. Almost synonyms. It would force its way through kitchens and living rooms, the low-plinth and high-plinth houses, the rich and the poor houses alike. At half an hour to midnight people, who would be sleeping in their houses had it not been for the impeding deluge, are moving to Kakpore, a neighbouring village, with announcements being made from mosque asking people of the ‘safe’ village to accommodate the fleeing people. Another announcement being made from the mosque was terrifying enough to induce terror, declaring that Jehlum itself was coming with full force towards Kakpore; “Darya e Jehlumui chhu Kakporas kun pakaan!” In between the sobs and cries of humans, the grumbles of cattle, the howls of dogs, there were some giggles – of little children, that is. They love to move, they love the rains, I thought. Throughout the night people would come in hordes, make their way into the public school and the mosque nearby- to save their lives. There was no sleep that night. The thought which overwhelmed me at that point of time was about the great flood people had been talking about in the past years. Even the walled heart of my village Lelhar – gaam’andar – was going to sink. Rains were not stopping as if the sky was weeping for the collective failures of the people. It would, everyone argued, take just the mercy of the Lord to make it stop. Humans are powerless, as are cattle, in such times. Unpublished rescue operations in the dark of the night that would never make it to the TV screens, which we would come to know many days after, marked the night although majority of the people would have to wait till the next afternoon for evacuation to Kakpore.

On Saturday morning, it was still pouring down heavily and there was still no reliable update from the walled village – flooded for the first time with such a magnitude which defies even the oldest living memory. We would later come to know that it had been rumored, in other villages that no one had survived in our village. Such was the magnitude of the floods. Frantic attempts to reach Radio Kashmir helpline failed miserably. At eleven in the forenoon a special announcement from the mosque called people for special prayers – initially telling them to pray in their respective places and later calling all to the mosque. A young boy, a teenager led the prayers and broke down after the prayers. So did the other people in the mosque. As I was coming out of the mosque, walking to an uncle’s house where we were staying, I could see more and more people from my village coming – tears in the eyes, some asking about their other family members, drenched with rains asking for shelter. They were directed to the second storey of the mosque – the only one in a number of neighbouring villages which wasn’t touched by the floods and acted as a makeshift shelter for many and a community kitchen, for many days. This patch of land in the vicinity of the mosque would have looked like an island, I believe, to anyone flying in a helicopter above ‘taking stock of the situation’.

Although much safer than Lelhar which was by now completely submerged, people on this small piece of land in the vicinity of this mosque in Kakpore and those still stuck in Lelhar still needed to be evacuated to safer places as the water level had not yet receded. “In the older times there was Noah’s deluge and now we have this”, I heard an elderly man say as others nodded in agreement. In the evening that day a new acronym made way into the collective memory of the deluged people. It was a new addition to a host of acronyms including BSF, CRPF, RR, IRPF to which we are, thanks to occupation, already accustomed. The new acronym was NDRF. At 06:30 in the evening, having waited for than a hundred odd minutes in the heavy downpour, people began to return to their temporary shelters in the vicinity of the mosque as it was announced that no more NDRF boats would be coming. The stated reason was that NDRF operates only until 6 in the evening. The first of the three boats that had come that day had come around 4:30 pm. A rescue operation of one and a half hours. Quite an achievement. Do natural disasters also follow office timings, I asked myself!

Just before the sundown, people finally were able spot the sun after 6 days. Quite a ‘faint streak of light through dark clouds’ thing. Rains stopped but the deluge was still on. More than 2500 people still needed to be evacuated, some from Lelhar and some from Kakpore onwards to safer places. The situation demanded people who would stand up to brave the raging waters of Romush and Jehlum to carry people to the safer places. Here is where the youth of Lelhar rose to the occasion. Hidden from the media gaze here were scores of teenagers and men in their early twenties risking their lives saving others’. These heroes may never make it to the tv screens or studios. This was a rescue operation where there was nothing like “Lights, Camera, Rescue”. This operation had started in the early hours of Saturday and continued till all the people were taken to safe places in Pulwama. I was just amazed to see young people who I had otherwise seen only in the cricket field were actually saving people’s lives. I know some of them since the days they were little children. After all, I thought, it doesn’t take some military training or a course in disaster management to arm people with compassion or cultivate courage in them. These were people with almost zero experience of taming even a small shikara and they transported people in big boats otherwise used for sand extraction from Jehlum across the ‘sea’ bypassing rooftops, apple orchards, railway bridges, link roads and a deserted army camp. The army had deserted their camp early on Friday, on the way being saved from getting washed away by the youth of a neighbouring ‘separatist infested’ village.

Two nights of horror, when the line between life and death was continuously thinning with water level rising had finally ended. On the way to safer places, on a boat, I was the only member of my family. Although my parents had left just a few minutes earlier in another boat, I felt like I had seen my parents ages ago. In such times, even a unknown kid becomes like a member of your family when her mother entrusts him to you saying, “please take care of him!”

Tales of separation and of reunion, of sacrifice and of devotion, of selfless efforts and of unconditional care, of unflinching faith and of unwavering hope; a few hundred words cannot encompass it all.

Tavseef Mairaj can be reached at [email protected]

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