Charred under Snow

A devastating fire in godforsaken Rajwar valley left villagers at nature’s mercy, literally. Zafar Aafaq visits the beautiful valley to report the devastation

The remains of the houses engulfed in the fire

“The fifteen crucial minutes that could have prevented the fire from reducing everything to ashes were wasted at Rajwar Valley’s entry gates, manned by the army,” said Abdul Rashid Mir, village headman.

On December 28, 2016, the first fire tender that left from Handwara, some 20 kms from the village, was stopped at the highly militarized entrance of Rajwara valley.

The road to Rajwar passes through the middle of the camp. Both ends of the camp are guarded with huge gates, and are manned by soldiers from the last twenty five years. Once evening sets in no one is allowed to cross the gates.

The vehicles are allowed only in emergency that too after regressive enquiry.

That evening, firemen had to explain their purpose of visit to the soldiers, before they were allowed to go ahead.

“The checking delayed their arrival,” said Mir.

By the time the first fire tender arrived in Wudur village, half of Tund Mohalla was already razed to ground. The fire consumed more than two dozen structures, including nineteen residential houses. The cause of the fire is still unclear.

Tund Mohallah is a small idyllic hamlet tucked on the slopes of dense coniferous forests in Wudur village, 10 kilometers to the west of Handwara, in Rajwar valley.

The structures were made of wood — thus not leaving even scraps behind, except ashes in the air and charred stones beds on the ground.

The charred stone beds appear more like ruins of an empirical fort of medieval times. “Had it been for the Mughals, Tund Mohalla was an ideal spot for another Nishat Bagh,” said a teenage boy.

The snowfall that happened a week after the incident has veiled the marks of the tragedy, bringing a sense of relief to the victims.

Mir, who lives near Tund Mohallah, recalls the desperate cries he heard that night. “The fire had lit the entire village,” said Mir. “The flames were so high and huge that it was visible in Handwara.”

Immediately, Mir ran towards the site of fire, and rang up local MLA Sajad Lone’s number and informed him about the incident.

“Sajad Sahib acted quickly and entire district civil and police administration arrived on the scene,” said Mir.

The snow covered remains of the houses

That night people from entire Rajwar belt, particularly from neighbouring villages including Sultanpora, Saimol, Boran Watsur, Ahagam, poured in to Tund Mohalla and began helping the victims.

“They helped fire fighters, as well as the victims,” said Ali Mohammad Mir, village Sarpanch.

“It was because of collective efforts from villagers that fire was brought under control. Else entire Tund Mohalla would have been burnt to ashes,” said Ghulam Rasool Mir, a village elder.

“But had there been fire service station in Zachaldar town, the damage wouldn’t have been even this much.”

Next day The District Commissioner Kupwara, MLA Kupwara Bashir Ahmad Dar, MLA Langate Er Abdul Rasheed, SSP Handwara visited the village. The civil and Police administration collected reports of loss and issued tents. MLA Kupwara promised of all possible help and announced relief of Rs 1 lakh — to be released in instalments — to each family while Er Rasheed distributed Rs 10,000 to heads of families whose houses were completely damaged.

Some influential businessmen of Handwara provided financial relief which helped in rehabilitation of the families.

Hurriyat conference leader Bilal Gani Lone contributed some money as well.

Shabir Ahmad, 22, and his 18-year-old brother are excavating the tent buried under three feet snow. Before the snowfall, Shabir’s family of eight members, including their old parents, spent one week in the tent as their house was gutted in the fire. For now the Shabir and his family is living with their relatives in the neighbourhood of the village.

Like Shabir’s, other families living in tents had to be rehabilitated. Then the village elders decided to accommodate the affected people with families who have double storey houses. Some fled to other villages to live with their relatives.

However, the host families now face space constraints. “We are facing huge difficulty in managing nine members in four rooms of the ground floor,” says Ghulam Rasool Mir. The first floor is occupied by Abdul Rashid’s family who lost his house to fire. The two families have to share a common washroom.

“I ask the government to construct make shift barracks for the victim families,” village headman Abdul Rasheed Mir demanded.

The tone of the grief stricken villagers resonate the dearth of relief. “For two members a family received one blanket which falls short of the requirements and it becomes difficult to coup up with harsh winters,” complained Abdul Sattar, whose family of seven now live in two rooms at his in-laws house.

After the snowfall the villagers expected a visit by some government officials, but there was not even a single statement. “We have been left to God’s mercy,” Mir Said.

Make shift arrangement

From food stored for winter to books of children the fire burnt every bit it touched. The initial relief which included some bags of free ration from the government proved too little to last beyond one week.

Forests cover vast majority of the land in the valley leaving little space for agriculture. People are heavily dependent on the food supply, especially rice from ration stores. The cultivable land produces pulses and maize mostly.

“The stores run out of stocks without meeting the requirement,” says Sarpanch.  “After the tragedy, we had demanded free ration for six months but the government is yet to say yes.”

The devastation has made daily life for villagers a struggle for survival. They demand essentials like cooking gas, fire wood, food grains; shelter is eminent but the government seems to have forgotten the victims, the moment devastating flames were put out.

The people of Wudur and neighbouring villages pooled in money, donated clothes and other material things for the victim families to manage the crises.

Abdul Rasheed, says that they are thankful to the people of Rajwar for their help. “In these times of grief when we see people extending their support, it brings smiles to our faces and restores our faith in humanity.”





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