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One year after Kashmir floods: Memories of an autumn lost (First Person)

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By Ruwa Shah, Srinagar,

“What if the water engulfs the whole city,” my friend asked as we crossed Lalchowk, in a local bus, its wheels submerged in water. “Impossible,” I replied laughingly. This was my last meeting with her for more than a month.

This was three days before the deluge hit Srinagar on September 7, 2014.

The next day, September 5, the roads near our house in Bemina were under water. It was raining heavily. The water first started to gather in our kitchen garden from where my mother had collected fresh red tomatoes and brinjals for dinner — the dinner that we never ate.

Soon the town was rife with news that a flood was impending in South Kashmir. Everyone was scared, but none imagined that River Jhelum would change its course, and stream through Srinagar, submerging houses and taking several lives and precious belongings with it.

An eerie calm fell in which the sound of gushing water was the only over-powering reality – the distant hiss had changed to a loud roar in no time. Channels of water now flowed down lanes and streets.

The thought top most on everyone’s mind was whether we should leave the house and escape the deluge. But it was almost midnight and we wondered what would happen to our house, a three-storey structure built eight years ago, if we left it unguarded.

As my younger sister and I fell into a restless sleep, the last sound loud in our ears was my mother reciting the Holy Quran.

On September 6, I woke up at 5 am only to find Jhelum’s waters lapping at my feet in the living area of the house on the groundfloor. That water had whisked away my sandals and was now making its way up the house stairs, not too slowly.

At about 9 am my Mamu (maternal uncle), Dr Naseem Zafar, managed to reach our house in a sports utility vehicle (SUV), small cars stood submerged in the area.

“Leave everything as it is… we have to leave the house immediately,” my father, Altaf Ahmed, an advocate, shouted at my mother, Zahida, who was still trying to roll up the expensive carpets in the living room and leave it at a higher level, and gather valuables. In the next 15-odd minutes that she spent running about confused trying to figure what to take along, the water had started flowing fast and had entered our living room.

By the time we started getting into the SUV at 9.30 am, the roaring water was showing its teeth, I was treading ground submerged up to my chest. The SUV’s engine was now getting flooded.

I wanted to taste the peaches and the pomegranates in our garden, which my mom had not let me touch for months, waiting for them to ripen.

When we left, our vegetable patch was loaded with fresh and ripe produce and the flowers in the garden were in full bloom.

A month later, when the water receded, a three-feet layer of muck and junk of the flood greeted us.

All the trees in our garden had turned black. It was no longer the home I knew. Even the doors didn’t open to invite us in. The floodwaters had made them bloat up. Nothing was like before.

My once beautiful home was a dirty, ghostly reflection of what it was. I tried to find one thing that had survived the wrath of Jhelum. I could only find the Quranic verse hung in a huge frame on the drawing room wall.

Clothes, kitchen appliances, curtains, furnishing and every removable item had to be piled up on the road. It was all to be discarded. I was heartbroken. Faced with nature’s fury depression was a natural consequence.

I had been keeping the dark mood at bay by volunteering my time at a relief camp in the month we spent away from home. The damage was far more severe at a lot of places.

The paddy fields were destroyed; orchards were without apples; and people were starving.

In several villages there was no drinking water. Thirsty and desperate, the villagers grabbed at whatever little relief material we carried for them.

The water did not recede in most areas for 20 days. Almost half of the population was out on the roads. People made tents on pavements with bedsheets and blankets. After witnessing such devastation, my house was no longer a sore point. “We are far better than the people on the roads,” my family and I reminded ourselves.

At Ahmad Hospital — which was the only functional hospital in Srinagar at that time — I heard heart-wrenching stories.

Dozens of women had delivered babies that day. One of the women, who had just delivered a baby boy, told me that she had to jump from the second storey of her house into a water tank that was turned into a boat by her husband.

Another pregnant women said that she had to lie on the railway tracks for two days without any shelter or food since that was the only elevated spot around.

As I was overcoming my fear, I happened to visit the worst affected area in Jawahar Nagar from where the waters had receded. Two dead bodies, swelled up and distorted, was all that was left behind.

Amidst all my helplessness I was also feeling sheer relief that everybody in my family had survived. After all, for that autumn in 2014, all that Srinagar did was to try and somehow live another day.

(Ruwa Shah can be contacted at ruwa.s@ians.in)

–Indo-Asian News Service