As Jhelum was swelling, the elders in Pampore were willing to bet that the river would not touch the town because there is a history of co-existence between the two. KL Associate Editor Shams Irfan skipped betting and fled to safety with his relatives only to spend many nights in the Jeep, the last prized possession he rescued for his shelter
On September 17, 2014, exactly ten days after Kashmir witnessed its worst floods ever, I took my two-and-a-half-year-old niece Rida out for a walk. She was silent for most of these days as she had spent four days at a friend’s place in Namblabal Pampore, one of the few areas that were spared by nature’s wrath.
When we reached near her favourite grocery shop which is located at the end of the street, she held my hand tightly and said innocently, “Paani wale khokha ne sab kuch le liya!” (Water-devil has taken everything).
There was nothing left inside the shop, just empty shelves filled with muck and the trace of water that had touched its ceiling. The front counter from where Rida would choose colourful candies was laying upside-down on the floor. And the jars that used to be filled with chocolates were broken into pieces. The entire shop wore a deserted look that probably pained Rida.
Only ten days back, on September 7, at 1:30 AM, I was woken by my visibly shaken mother. ‘Water is coming’ is all that I remember her saying. Without asking her why or what or how I jumped out of my bed and went straight for my car keys.
My car was parked in the front lawn of my house. I still don’t remember how and why I took out my car and parked it in the lawns of Block Development Office which is located at a considerable height.
Then I ran as fast as I could towards my house in the darkness. All I could remember was that there were people running in all directions. Some were looking for their loved one, some trying to shift their valuables on the first floor hoping that water won’t breach man-made barriers.
On my way home I stopped near our mosque to check where exactly the water has reached. In the darkness of the night, all I could see was a five feet high wave of water moving fast towards our lane. I ran fast towards my house. As I reached home I saw one of our drivers struggling to take out jeep (Force Cruise) out. That jeep became my home for the next four nights.
The Jhelum has breached the bund (on its own) at Kandizal, then Khadermoh, Movli Sahab Mosque, Sartab Sahab (RA), Magaswari, Khadi Bhandar and Kalib Kadal in Pampore. It (water) came rushing from all directions roaring like a wild stream carrying everything people had thrown into it over the years. It took water just ten minutes to submerge most of the Pampore town.
In those ten minutes, which seem to have passed within seconds, we managed to move most of the valuables to the first floor. Rida was sleeping in her room on the first floor unaware of the tragedy that was unfolding outside. It took water less than 15 minutes to completely submerge our front garden and it was rising fast. My father, who was sure that water won’t reach our house ever as we live on a height, was now sitting at the front veranda hoping for a miracle. But this was no night for miracles. It was the night of desperation, destruction, helplessness, and of course heroism.
I along with my mother and other family members took shelter inside the Jeep while my father decided to stay inside the house.
At around 2:30 AM, Sameer, a distant friend of mine came looking for us and finally found us inside the Jeep that was parked in the Block Development Office lawn. He was gracious enough to take my family along to his house. In the darkness of the night, I could see Rida shaking as my mom and other family members boarded his car. The next time I met Rida and my family was after three days of wilderness and wandering.
After they left I found myself sitting all alone inside the Jeep. I tried to close my eyes and sleep for a while but the moon-light that was coming through the windows created an illusion as if I am sitting in the middle of the water. The night was long and scary.
At around 3:30 AM, I finally got out of the Jeep and went to my house. My father was still sitting on the veranda looking helplessly as the water filled the entire locality. The houses located on the other side of the street were submerged up to first floor. There was graveyard like silence all around. The only sound that one could hear was of shrieks and cries from the people who were still trapped inside their houses.
The main market at Kadlabal Chowk that was bustling with life a few hours ago was under 25 feet of water now. Houses located along the market were barely visible. There were people still trapped inside those houses. They were pleading for help. Then finally came the ray of hope for them when a local fruit vendor managed to bring a boat and started the rescue. He worked tirelessly throughout the night despite the fact that his own family was trapped and inaccessible.
By the time day-broke, the entire town was silent and in mourning. It was one of the longest nights that I have lived. The day-light bought new challenges and new hope. Now the struggle was for surviving the aftermath. People were standing near the new river-line looking desperately as the water was slowly inching towards their feet. A small boy who was sitting on the steep road leading to Block Development office took a piece of brick and marked a red-line across the road, hoping that water won’t cross this barrier. Within minutes that red-line had vanished too.
At around noon, finally, an army boat arrived. For the rest of the day, army with the help of local SHO started ferrying people who were trapped inside their houses. There were emotional scenes all around. People were hugging their relatives who were brought to safety; some were waiting anxiously hoping that the next lot will bring their loved ones. A middle-aged man, whom I had seen in the market at several occasions, was sobbing helplessly. He was pleading with the army captain, “my ailing mother is missing. Please take me home.”
Local SHO who would not otherwise move outside the police station without his heavily armed guards was ferrying water for the stranded in a small wooden boat. From Sambura village, a pro-resistance bastion some 8 kilometres south of Pampore town, which was one of the worst affect by floods, tales of heroism didn’t take long to reach us. Local SHO told a small gathering of people that out of 9 army personnel’s trapped in flood local boys managed to save 7 by putting their own lives in risk. “Inke pichle sab gunah maaf” he announced emotionally.
The worst-hit were those who shifted to the other side of the Jhelum known as Alamdar Colony or simply Pul-Paar (across the bridge). One elderly person, whom I met during my wanderings told me that people have over the years constructed houses in what used to be the outlet for Jhelum during floods, “what else do you expect?”
There was anger against the under-construction multi-million rupees highway project that passes through Pampore town. It pushed back the water into the main town. With no electricity, no phones, no internet and no water; we were forced into an era where rumours held more credibility than truth. There were rumours that the villages adjacent to Pampore are completely washed off and thousands have been killed. And giving the destruction that we had seen with our own eyes in one of the supposedly safe zones like Pampore town, it was hard not to believe those rumours.
For the next four nights, me and my cousins roamed around the dry patches hoping that the water will finally recede. The streets where life danced a few hours ago were now part of the extended Jhelum. It was unbelievable to see boats playing on the inundated streets. But then life goes on. It has to go on!