Decades after late Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad converted low-lying garden Seinwari into Sonawari for habitation, an overflowing Jhelum found its way in. It took villagers 25 days of back-breaking efforts to get back into their crumbling houses. Safwat Zargar spends a day in the area to report the crisis that people say have just begun
During the intervening night of September 9 and 10, the sleepy villages of Ganastan and Rakh – e – Shilwat in North Kashmir’s Bandipora district, woke up to the sound of a blast, miles away. Hours later, waters from Srinagar outskirts, like a roaring lion, began entering the fields that surround the villages of North Kashmir. By morning, dozens of villages of Sonawari belt were underwater.
According to locals, in order to save its headquarters at Badami Bagh cantonment, army blasted off the Hokersar Bund near Lawaypora on Srinagar-Muzaffarabad highway. The impact of blast lasted for 25 days. As the water inundated the villages in the belt, villagers fled, leaving everything behind. For more than two weeks, they had no news of their belongings and homes.
Nestled between Baramulla on eastern side and Bandipora on the western side, the villages, caught in the floods, had no connection with the outside world and official administration, when under the deluge.
On Friday morning, more than three weeks after floods turned his single-storey concrete house into a ramshackle structure of cracks and gaping walls, Ali Mohammad Malla and his son, of Chaki Ganastan, are busy in salvaging whatever was untouched by floods. But, there is very little left.
“For years, I laboured hard in the fields to construct a house for my family. It took floods a day to turn it uninhabitable,” Malla says.
Malla, along with his nine children and wife, is sheltering at a relative’s house in the adjacent village. “The house is slowly but continuously sinking. We pushed newspaper mounds in the cracks a day before when we returned the next morning, the paper mounds had fallen on the floor.”
Few hundred meters away, Aamina, who is in her early 30s, is sifting wood from the debris of her fallen mud-house. “Our carpet-weaving loom worth 1.5 lakh rupees is buried under this,” Aamina says while pointing out towards a corner, which is capped by fallen tin-roof of the house. Her husband, Abdul Ahad, left in the morning to find work. “He is jobless now,” Aamina says. “I have left my seven children in their maternal home. We both return to my home in the evening.”
The villages in two halqas – Ganastan and Rakh – e – Shilwat – of Sumbal Sonawari, dotted with willow trees and swathes of wetland and paddy fields, is home to some 1700 families. Farming and carpet-weaving are the major sources of livelihood for the people. There is no government-run health care centre in the area. Only two government middle-schools in the area cater to the educational needs of the children, one of which is still submerged. For higher studies and college, the youths have to reach Sumbal, seven kilometres away. Office of the deputy commissioner Bandipora is thirty-seven kilometres far. Lal Chowk, just 20!
“The water came from two sides – Jhelum’s from Shadi Pora side, Flood channel’s from Zalpora side – and turned the area into a silent lake. Hadn’t it been the vast swathes of land encircling the area, all the villages would have been washed off,” says Bashir Ahmad Hajam, former Sarpanch of the area. Bashir’s assertion proves right when one looks at the thousands of hectares of marshy land and paddy field still under several feet of water.
The villagers are aghast over the government’s response. Locals allege, except for a patwari to assess the damage to the houses, no official has visited the place, so far. MLA Mohammad Akbar Lone paid a visit once. They also allege; no relief or rescue team from the government reached them. A team of volunteers that included some doctors provided basic health facilities to the flood survivors after water started receding. Jammu Kashmir Armed Police personnel also set up a relief camp in the village for a few days.
When the water level was still, youths waded through six-feet waters to arrange a water pump, for dewatering the villages. The two-relief trucks meant for the villages were snatched by other flood-hit victims near Shilwat and Andarkoot, locals allege.
“Not a single doctor came from the government’s Community Health Centre at Sumbal to visit the place. There were apprehensions of disease breakout as many animals had died in floods,” says Mohammad Yaseen, a medical assistant from Hajam Pora. “Volunteers gave us chlorine tablets and anti-biotics. Some even travelled to Srinagar to buy chlorine tablets.”
Yaseen, who volunteered at the camp, says most of the complaints were of bronchitis, intestinal infection and skin allergy.
During 25 days of floods, when all the people had fled to upper areas in the neighbouring district of Ganderbal, around 20 young men from different villages, camped in the third storey of a mosque for days to keep vigil over the area, as the rumours of thieves prowling near vacant houses were making rounds.
A father of four unmarried daughters, Ali Mohammad in Mustafabad village, is worried over his daughter’s marriage scheduled in late October. The destruction of his concrete house by floods isn’t his concern. He is worried about the pressure; the groom’s side is putting on him, to ensure the marriage is celebrated on the scheduled date. “I can’t enter my house. It is dangerous. How can we celebrate here?” he says while shying away.
“There are 100 per cent of cracks in all the houses. Fields are still in the water and the rice crop has turned into slush,” says Abdul Hamid, a truck driver and a son of a prominent landlord, Ghulam Nabi Dar. “Usually, at this time, we would employ around 150 people for reaping and other activities; I wonder where those workers will go now!”
With any permanent help from government seeming distant, many families, risking their lives, are living in the sunken houses that are on last legs. Broken walls and craters in the living rooms of the families make it hard to differentiate between the rubble and household items. Piles of bedding, curtains and flooring are heaps of muck.
“I don’t enter my house during the day. We eat and cook on the verandah of the ground floor,” says Manzoor Ahmad Dar, whose two-storey concrete house looks like falling to pieces. “But, for the night we have no alternative. We sleep on sunken floors under the loose ceiling.”
The area’s main connecting link – Chaki Ganastan to Gassigund – which bridges the village to Srinagar is a pool of dirty water. Area’s water supply scheme and the patch of road to graveyard continue to be underwater.
The floods dealt a blow to another industry in the village – dairy farming. Before floods, around three thousand litres of milk would be transported to Srinagar city, daily. Today, not even three hundred litres move out of the village. Some 25 cows drowned in floodwaters. One thousand families, who rear sheep, and had sent them to pastures in Sonamarg, have been told by the caretakers that a part of their flock has been killed due to floods.
“I have around 150 sheep at pastures in Sonamarg, but when the floods came the Gujjar caretaker informed me that my thirty sheep were washed away by torrential rains in the upper reaches of Sonamarg,” says Mohammad Ramzan, a local. “The condition is much worse in my area that I can’t bring the remaining sheep, back.”
Four kilometres from Ganastan, at Ankhloo village, people queue up near a local Imambarah to collect cash-relief distributed by an NGO. This village of a hundred and fifty households was struck by floods on September 10, since then village has been living on volunteer relief from Srinagar and Baramulla.
“Government announced free-ration of 35 kilograms to every flood-affected family, we were only given 25,” says Manzoor Ahmad, a local, while waiting for his turn to collect relief.
“Please tell me, for how long can a family survive on 25 kilograms of rice,” another local, Ghulam Hassan, complains. “Our houses are on the verge of collapse. The government should rehabilitate us on priority,” he says.
A non-local NGO from Gujarat distributed flour bags, rice and cooking oil among the residents of Ankhloo on Monday. The villagers say even though volunteer groups and NGOs have reached us, the government is still nowhere.
At some places in the village, pools of floodwater, smelling putrid with dirt and human waste, punctuate the area. Locals are afraid about the disease breakout. Till now, no sanitation or dewatering exercise has been initiated.
“We are living near the mouth of death,” says Mohammad Hussain. “And it can kill us anytime.”