For many it was a crisis but for a few the flood was an opportunity. As hundreds of youth risked their lives to save the marooned population, a few black sheep put a cost to the rescue and made quick bucks, reports Saima Bhat
On September 8, 2014, a day after Kashmir’s worst floods devastated everything that came its way, Sameer Bhat, 20, was holed up in a relief camp at Gupkar. He decided to visit his Shivpora home. He was aware about the rising water level in the area but was ready to take the risk.
Sameer, along with a few friends, made a ramshackle boat of foam and wood logs, and set out for Shivpora. “We wanted to see if our houses were still intact,” says Sameer.
On way to Shivpora, rowing through deserted and inundated streets, what Sameer saw was shocking and painful. “We came across a man who was rowing a big boat. He stopped near a house where a person was trapped,” recalls Sameer.
When Sameer and his friends reached there they overheard the boatman bargaining with the trapped person for rescuing his family.
“They (trapped person and his family members) were crying and wailing desperately for help but the boatman was adamant for a deal first. ‘Godeh kar lafaz’ he kept saying,” recalls Sameer. “Finally the boatman agreed when the trapped person offered him the ownership of his house.”
Sameer and his friends desperately wanted to help the trapped family but their ramshackle boat was not suitable for rescue.
Pained with what he and his friends witnessed, Sameer rowed on towards his house. After fifteen minutes, he came across another boatman, who was stuffing his inner pockets with gold ornaments collected from desperate people trapped in the floods obviously in lieu of a rescue.
“He had made a hole in the inner lining of his jacket in which he was keeping the gold ornaments collected from the people he had rescued from floods,” says Sameer.
After wandering through flood waters for hours, Sameer and his friends could not make it to their houses and returned to the Gupkar relief camp.
“The desperation of people for saving their families was heart-wrenching. We couldn’t bear that pain and we broke down when we saw our family members again,” says Sameer.
Mohammad Hanief, who resides in Rainawari, one of the few areas untouched by flood waters, recounts his brother’s last phone call with horror. His brother lived in Jawahar Nagar. “Please save us. We are already on the attic and the water is rising fast. We are drowning. Please save us,” was all Hanief’s brother managed to say before the line snapped.
Without wasting any time Hanief rushed to Zero Bridge, hoping that he would get a boat to save his brother’s family. “There were army boats but they were saving tourists and non-locals only. I pleaded with them but they didn’t listen,” recalls Hanief. “Then I managed to find a local boatman who agreed to take me to Jawahar Nagar. I had a sigh of relief. But before I could board his boat he said, ‘zeh lach lagney’ (It will cost Rs 2 lakh),” says Hanief. He was shocked but had no other alternative. “I began to plead with him, tried to remind him that it’s inhuman. But he was not moved,” recalls Hanief.
“Finally, with my brother’s life at stake, I offered him 1 lakh rupees which he accepted after dilly-dallying for a while,” says Hanief. “At that time my brother’s life was more important than money. If I had two lakh, I would not have wasted time in bargaining. I would have given him that as well,” says Hanief emotionally.
As flood waters inundated everything including some of the best known addresses in Srinagar, Dr Khalida, who works at Lal Ded Hospital, panicked and began to wail uncontrollably when she learnt that her locality, Wazir Bagh, was also flooded. “My two kids were alone at home. You can understand a mother’s desperation. I couldn’t control myself and tried everything to reach home,” recalls Dr Khalida.
But with water everywhere, Wazir Bagh, which is otherwise at a five minutes walking distance from LD hospital was completely inaccessible. “It seemed like Wazir Bagh was on a different planet altogether. There was no way I could have reached my home except on a boat,” says Dr Khalida.
Then, Dr Khalida saw a young-man coming towards her with a boat. He seemed Godsent. “He asked straightaway, ‘if I can help’. He was like an angel that time,” recalls Dr Khalida.
But suddenly the angel turned into a devil. Without shame or a hint of emotion, the young-man asked Dr Khalida, ‘what can you offer me in return!’
Shell-shocked Dr Khalida was pained by his ‘straightforwardness’ but then realized that the safety of her kids was at stake. “I was wearing a gold chain and a bangle. I gave him both,” says Dr Khalida.
For Mehnaz Ishtyaq, who lived in Rajbagh, the nightmare of the five nights that she spent on the attic of her three-storey house with her two sons, aged two and three, refuses to let her sleep. On the third-day, Mehnaz managed to cut a part of the tin-roof, to get attention of the helicopters. But that didn’t help as choppers flew past her house without bothering to notice them. On the forth morning, Mehnaz heard motor-boat engines roaring in the distance. Her face lit with hope and joy.
She thought it’s the end of nightmare, finally. “I shouted as loud as I could to get their (army’s) attention. They waved back. I told them to please rescue us as I have small kids. But they said that the boat is full (with tourists) and assured they will be back in 15 minutes,” says Mehnaz, while trying to control her tears. “Then I pleaded, at least take my kids. ‘Jagah nahi hai’ (we don’t have space) they shouted back again,” recalls Mehnaz.
“Then I shouted again, at least give me two water bottles for my kids, they are thirsty since four-days. But they simply sped away,” says Mehnaz.
With nothing to drink or eat Mehnaz was forced to give her kids flood water. “I don’t want to remember that time please. It was better to die at once then going through hell,” says Mehnaz.
Then on the fifth day, a local boatman came past her house. Mehnaz was elated to see the local young man with a boat. “I was crying uncontrollably, probably with joy, when I saw that boat nearing towards my house,” remembers Mehnaz. But her joy was short lived as the young boatman asked her, ‘kyah dikh bachavnas?’ (What will you pay for the rescue?)
“I was already on the attic, holding my two kids, with nothing left to offer. But the young boatman wanted something or else he threatened to leave,” says Mehnaz painfully.
“I took out my two gold bangles and the Pashmina shawl I was wearing and waved it towards him. He flashed a cunning smile and that is how I got out of my house,” says Mehnaz who vows never to go back to her house in Rajbagh. “My neighbour, who is quite well-off, had to part with his new Scorpio SUV for saving his family,” says Mehnaz.
Meanwhile in the uptown Natipora area, the boatmen, who were rowing their private boats and rescuing people, had their rates fixed at Rs 10,000 per person.
Javaid Naikoo, a journalist from Shopian, after learning about the worsened flood situation in South Kashmir’s Islamabad district decided to visit the area with relief material. After collecting the relief material locally, Naikoo and a group of volunteers from Shopian set out for Islamabad. “Once we were in Islamabad the challenge was to reach the trapped people first. And for doing that we needed boats,” says Naikoo.
Naikoo and his friends then got in touch with a local boatman. Naikoo told him that they need to ferry relief material for the trapped people deeper into localities. “We asked him to arrange two more boats for us, which he did,” says Naikoo. But before Naikoo and his friends could load the relief material into boats, boatmen asked for money. “They said, ‘it will cost you Rs 30,000 for three boats’,” recalls Naikoo.
It was shocking for Naikoo and his friends to see how these boatmen were trying to make fortune out of people’s misery. “We thought that he would be more than eager to help as he is a local man,” says Naikoo.
“We tried to make them understand that we are carrying relief material for people stranded in their houses. It is a noble cause and you too are duty bound to contribute. But they were not ready to listen,” recalls Naikoo. “When all ways to convince them ended, we finally overpowered them and tied these boatmen with the ropes and took away boats on our own,” says Naikoo with a smile. “That was the only way to make them understand,” says Naikoo.
After distributing the relief material Naikoo and his friends abandoned the boats and went home.
Such incidents are not new to Kashmir as historians have recorded how boatmen took advantage of the situation and became rich. They might have been quite a few but that has maligned the entire community.
Walter R Lawrence in The Valley of Kashmir has mentioned that during the floods of 1897, in the low villages around Panjinara (Panzinara) the people hurried off to the higher villages with their children and cattle, and there was little loss of life. Those who stayed on spent the night on trees and begged hard for help from passing boatmen. But in too many cases the boatmen were grasping and heartless, and from information gathered in Srinagar and in the villages, the author writes that the Hanjis, as a body, behaved in a brutal and disgraceful manner.
Another Historian, P N K Bamzai, while writing about the famines in Kashmir in his book, ‘Socio-Economic History of Kashmir 1846-1925’ says, that the Gujjars of the mountains were the heaviest sufferers, and many orphan girls were sold to the city Hanjis.
Such instances have been taking place every time there has been a major flood. Riffat Abdullah, the ETV reporter who was trapped in Rajbagh and who post-rescue was part of the rescue efforts said after his group received complaints, they set up a small group to check the menace. “This group actually detained two persons who were fleecing people for rescue,” Riffat said. “They were beaten by the people after five or six gold rings, Rs 38000 and papers of a house were recovered from them.”
Riffat said the duo was handed over to the police officers near Dalgate relief camp. “We advised the police to contribute the fleeced money to the local community kitchen and trace the people whom the two had looted,” Riffat said. “I am not aware of any follow up.”
A senior police officer who was managing the Lal Chowk-Dalgate belt said they received complaints but there is no formal case registered in any police station about the fleecing. “I am trying to locate the duo that your journalist friend says was handed over to the police on September 9,” the officer said. “We will act against such elements but let the people come forward as this can not be tolerated.”