Faced with certain death in deluged Rajbagh ETV’s Rifat Abdullah recorded his last message after dialling his high-end contacts for help turned futile. Syed Asma talks to the dare-devil reporter who not only managed to get out alive but saved many others
September 7- the day and date I would always remember. The day was not less than a catastrophe for all of us. I remember this morning I woke up to the sound of gushing water. Though, I was well aware of the situation. Till a day before I was reporting from the flood-hit areas of Bemina and Mehjoor Nagar for my channel ETV, Hyderabad. I had been through the water-filled streets, I had captured inundated houses and plight of people but little did I expect that I would see such a frightening face of Jhelum in my locality, Rajbagh.
After hearing the sound of water striking the walls of my house, I looked out through the window. The water of Jhelum had entered my locality; it had gained the speed and volume. It had turned violent, broke windows, and was washing away whatever came in its way – walls, vehicles, furniture, furnishing, animals and even houses.
I could not believe my eyes!
Moving out of my house at that moment was out of the question. Reaching my office was impossible, so I thought to report from home. I woke up my cameraman, Mushtaq Ahmed and told him to capture every single detail that was visible from my room’s window. He even recorded my Piece to Camera (PTC): “Water from River Jhelum has entered the localities of Rajbagh and the residents have moved on to their rooftops. The level of water is continuously rising and the speed is such that even cars are washed away. It is hustle-bustle all over.”
Mournful, tense, helpless faces were visible all around. Everyone was crying for help but no one paid heed to us. Meanwhile, I tried to send my recorded video footage to my head-office at Hyderabad but I wasn’t able to. The internet had stopped working. I desperately wanted to send it across but failed!
Crying children, wailing women and helpless men were waving their hands through windows and rooftops. We all knew that we were equally helpless but still were asking for help, probably to each other only because no authority, no helping hand, was available.
As a journalist, over the years, I have developed a lot of contacts. I tried to use them all for my rescue but no one came to help us.
The stress was vivid and chances of dying, drowning, in our own houses were increasing. The water level was continuously increasing, so was fear. Our first storey was inundated; we shifted our complete furnishing to comparatively safer places.
Sitting helplessly in my room, looking out of the window, I was thinking about every possibility of saving myself and my family- my mother and my sister. Looking around, two rolls of thermocool caught my attention. I thought of making a boat myself. I started looking for a rope which would help me to tie them together but could not get hold of a rope. I tried hard but failed.
Looking at these helpless faces, especially of children and women, was painful. The helplessness of people and water level was increasing with each passing second. Water surged beyond 20ft. And with that, all our hopes of survival seemed drowned.
I started calling up the concerned officials again, but to my surprise, even the state looked helpless. The local police station of Rajbagh had submerged. The policemen, who are the part of emergency service, were crying for help.
The irony is after a few days they were rescued by local volunteers.
As the chance of staying alive appeared bleak, I told Mushtaq to take last PTC of my life in which I would sum up our struggle. I thought, maybe, after our death, someone will catch hold of this memory card and will find the footage. While giving the PTC, I broke down and said: “We are helplessly crying and there is no one who could listen to us. All our hopes of getting out alive from here have died down. Allah is the only hope left for us.”
Despite repeated attempts of seeking help from others, no one came to our rescue. It was then I decided to swim across Jhelum and arrange a boat from somewhere. I had no idea where will I get the boat but I decided to go and arrange a boat, no other way was left.
I shared the plan with Mushtaq but he did not allow me. “The water looks dangerous and the chances of you getting washed away with it are high so you should wait for some time,” he cautioned me.
We all were crying for help. And at last at around 11.30 AM, I got the boat. It was the first boat in our locality which rescued me, my family, Mushtaq and an old man in the neighbourhood. I decided to drop my family at a hotel near Zero bridge. I told them to stay there and pray for our well-being.
I went back, as an immediate rescue in the locality was much needed! I took the boat back and started rescuing people.
When the conditions started getting worst around Zero bridge, I decided to take my family out of the hotel to a safer place. Suleiman Teng seemed the safest of all, so I took them there. Till then thousands of people had shifted there and were living under the open sky.
Under those circumstances, distance from Rajbagh to the top of Suleiman Teng appeared less; sitting under the open sky for days was safer.
I took part in rescue operations for almost four days. For those days, every morning I along with other volunteers used to start the ‘rescue mission’ and rescued hundreds of people.
I am a sportsperson and have participated in national swimming and kayaking canoeing championships. Being a sportsman helped me all those days- I could manage well. I carried many people especially children on my shoulders and took them to safer places, mostly Suleiman Teng.
It was in Suleiman Teng that we got something to eat. A relief camp, first in the area, was organised by the local community of Malteng who served the victims for days together.
In all those days, not a single food packet was dropped in Rajbagh, Jawahar Nagar, Suleiman Teng or even the adjoining areas. Though a lot of choppers flew around, but probably, they were assessing the damage only.
Staying at Suleiman Teng for a couple of days, a thought came to many of us that state should have made a make-shift headquarter to manage the disaster. I later shared it with Omar Abdullah as well while interviewing him and he could not defend himself.
After four days, I managed to fly to my head-office to Hyderabad where I handed over the footage and while coming back via Delhi I collected medicines and baby food from my friends and got them to the flood-affected valley.