NATURAL DISASTER WATCH: Towering task under slush mountain Bodies buried in mud pile 3-storey high – long forgotten as an exotic hideaway, now aggrieved ?!!
FROM THE TELEGRAPH
BY MUZAFFAR RAINA
Srinagar, Aug. 8: Rescue workers in Himalayan Leh are facing a different kind of mountainous challenge — that of damp, muddy slush, sometimes as high as a three-storey building.
“You have to shift mountains of slush to rescue and retrieve bodies,” said Aijaz Ahmed, a shopkeeper who has become a rescue volunteer in Choglamsar, one of the areas worst affected by Thursday night’s flash floods. “The locality has been levelled. It would seem 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.”
Defence spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel J.S. Brar gave a reason for the slush accumulation. Parts of mountains caved in during the cloudburst, he said, accumulating as high as 25ft of slush at some places. “At some places, the slush is as tall as a three-storey building. It is also quite damp, making rescue work more difficult,” Brar said.
“That is why rescue work is very slow but thousands of our men are on the job. Heavy engineering equipment, including some bridges, were airlifted here today to improve connectivity and help in the rescue operation,” he added.
In the last two days, rescue workers have been able to find just 20 bodies.
A senior police officer in Leh said: “The death toll may cross 500. We have recovered 136 bodies and 400 are injured. At least 500 are still missing.”
Around 90 tourists are believed to be stuck at Lamayaru, which is over 100km from Leh town. A list of 76 more foreign tourists, who are stranded in other parts of Leh, was being forwarded to concerned authorities, an official said.
In Leh town, Suhail Ahmad Khan, a Srinagar resident who has a shop, said: “Dozens of houses have crumbled in the main town. There was a market and several houses near the main bus stand. They have disappeared. The rescuers are still clearing the area close to the bus stand and survivors living only 100 metres away are wondering how long it will take to start work in their area.”
Fiang village and adjoining Phey, 20km from Leh town and on the Kargil highway, were also badly hit. Eighteen bodies have been found in three mohallas of Fiang.
Shamsuddin Khan, an inspector in the state consumer affairs department who is now a volunteer in Fiang, recounted the escape of a resident. “When the cloudburst hit the village, Hussain Ali climbed a tree, his son on his shoulders. But his house was swept away with his three other children and his wife.”
In Phey, a makeshift camp of about 200 labourers has reported 30 deaths. The labourers had come from Bihar, Uttarakhand and several other states.
Voluntary army, tied by tragedy – India too numb ?!!
BY KANISHKA PRASAD
It was the fag end of what had been an idyllic vacation among the higher snow-capped peaks and high-altitude lakes of the Himalayas. I was with a group of friends and we had crossed two of the highest motorable passes, some of the rarest breeding grounds for flora and fauna, and sighted particularly rare birds. But we were soon to be exposed to another side of this bountiful nature.
Having encountered very poor weather and road conditions at Tsomoriri and received reports of similar conditions around the region, we returned to Leh on August 5 evening. That night, a severe cloudburst, accompanied by incessant streaks of lightning and rolling thunder, struck Leh. We were shocked by the severity of the storm, but it was only the next morning that we realised the extent of devastation caused by the storm.
News was sketchy and slow in coming as electricity and telecom services were down, but soon we found out that the airport runway had been rendered unusable and severe damage had been caused in lower Leh.
At about 11am, we made our way down the hillside past the main bazaar and streams of rock and mud towards the bus stop. As we turned down the hill, we saw the remains of a vast river of rocks that had come down from behind the old Leh town and flattened everything in its path, leaving even concrete houses teetering on the brink of collapse.
We came upon a large group of volunteers at the site where two bulldozers and a small earthmover were at work as army jawans, assisted by sniffer dogs, were digging through the rubble. We joined the teams shovelling and transporting rubble. After about six to seven hours, we realised that the administrative agencies had failed to harness the true manpower of the volunteers: we were often left wondering what to do next and had to choose for ourselves new tasks and shifts of location within the affected area.
However, what I will always remember from this experience is the way people from home and abroad came together. The tourist from afar, local Ladakhi resident, Kashmiri trader, Bihari labourer, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian and Jew — all these became meaningless categorisations as we all assisted each other to try and make the relief work smoother.
Throughout the day, supplies of food, water, biscuits and lunch seemed to appear almost miraculously. Then again, a sari, a shoe, a book, a blanket, portions of house ornamentation and other personal effects would be pulled out of the rubble and passed down the assembly line of volunteers and we would be tied together by the sheer scale and extent of the tragedy.
In spite of the labour and effort that we put in on the first day, the stories and pieces of news filtering through made us aware that the devastation had been far more severe in the lower regions, such as the Buddhist settlement of Choglamsar and the towns of Nimmu and Karu.
What we had been exposed to was the tip of the iceberg as far as the scale of the disaster was concerned. The extensive loss of life and property means that the region will need time, effort and sustained support from all quarters to recover from this tragedy. As some elderly local people told us, the like of this has never been experienced in living memory.
(Prasad is a Delhi-based architect and photographer who was in Leh when the disaster struck. He wrote the account with the help of Anant Raina, Aditi Raina and Akila Jayaraman.)