Highway Helpers

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The road connecting Kashmir with the rest of the world is tricky and unstable. It turns bloody on the drop of a hat. Authorities apart, there are various groups voluntarily working to rescue people who are caught by the vagaries of nature, fate and rash driving, reports Saqib Mir

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Banihal Volunteers in Action. They rescued the only surviving young boy from a group of workers who fled Kashmir at the peak of Covid-19 scare in April 2020. Pic: Special arrangement

On a hot sunny day in Banihal, the humming bees were darting through the fruity air and the vehicles were, as usual, snaking through the treacherous Srinagar-Jammu national highway. In the afternoon, Mohammad Idrees Wani’s phone started flickering continuously with frantic calls. Wani alerted the members of his WhatsApp groups by posting an SOS message.

Almost immediately, all the group members drove towards Nachlana, a spot on the highway. Many ambulances also started running towards the site with frenetic sirens and flashing lights.

Rescued From The Gorge

Once there, Wani and colleagues started climbing down a gorge to reach the bank of river Bichladi. They saw the bank strewn with the bodies of dead and injured people. The screams of the injured were already turning into feeble cries which, in turn,  were being muffled by the roaring sound of Bichladi.

“To stop the bleeding of the injured, I told my group members to tear out their T-shirts and patch the wounds. Many of the critically injured died in front of our eyes” Wani recalled.

Some group members entered the nearby mangled bus with smoke still billowing from it and started taking the dead and the injured out with the help of the police and local residents. The injured and the dead were taken to the main road from where they were driven to hospitals in ambulances. Some critically injured were airlifted.

This was the fatal accident of an Amarnath Yatra bus that took place on July 16, 2017. Seventeen yatris died and 29 were injured. With rescue operation over, Wani’s group started driving home.

Personal Pain

Wani, 45, lives at Gund Adelkoot in Banihal outskirts.  Apart from working at a private construction company, Wani is the founder president of a local NGO Banihal Volunteers.

It was on February 18, 2012, when Wani’s only brother Mohammad Rayees Wani, then 30, was travelling home but could not reach. “After reaching  Khooni Nalah, Rayees’s car was hit by a couple of boulders that resulted in his on spot death,” Wani said.

The incident shattered Wanis’. Though Wani and his friends used to rescue people during accidents on the highway before Rayees’s death,  he decided to launch a full-fledged group later. Banihal Volunteers was formed in 2017 as a Trust and was later converted into a Society in 2019.

Some of the Banihal Volunteers in a group photograph. Pic: Special arrangement

“All the members of the NGO are local volunteers including labourers, shopkeepers, salesman and nobody is paid for the work we undertake,” Wani said.

The NGO has 30 members and its operations are between the Jawahar tunnel and the Ramban. Rescuing people is the main activity. If the situation demands, they distribute food packets free of cost to the stranded passengers, particularly during winters. Besides, the group provides help to Banihal residents during mishaps and natural calamities.

“The NGO also helps poor, needy and widows of the district. We distribute food and blankets to the people who lose their houses to the fire and in return receive donations from people,” Wani informed.

Virtual Connectivity

The NGO’s official Facebook page NGO Banihal volunteers has more than 50,000 followers. To avail the quick service of the NGO, they have not only provided their contact number on the page but have also painted it on rocks at different locations along the highway between Banihal and Ramban.

Mohammad Idress Wani, the founder president of Banihal Volunteers

“The guys at Banihal volunteers are doing great work. They rescue people during different accidents particularly those on the highway and even donate their own blood to the critically injured,” a Banihal resident, Tazeem Ahmed Wani said.

The NGO members are divided into smaller groups and are assigned specific duties during operations. One sub-group by the name Quick Reaction Team (QRT) reaches immediately to the accident spot and starts rescue.

The members of another group stand at different locations on the highway and start manning the traffic in order to smoothen the highway for the ambulances. Yet another group is assigned the duty to make sufficient arrangements at the hospital where the injured are shifted.

“Conducting a rescue mission on the highway during accidents is one of the most challenging tasks for anyone owing to its treacherous terrain and gorges but thanks to Almighty, since we launched this NGO, we have conducted dozens of rescue operations during days as well as nights. That too without proper personal protective equipment,” Wani said.

A Rescue In Pandemic

Syed Mudasir, 32 is NGO’s Secretary. He feels that conducting rescue operations in this mountainous region is not everybody’s cup of tea. Mudasir recalled the day when in April 2020, he got the news about four labourers stuck on Hingal top. They were actually seven who started trekking from Verinag Anantnag towards their homes in Banihal through the snowy mountains after the government had announced lockdown in the entire country in view of the Covid-19. Three managed to reach their homes successfully while four of them got stuck on the hilltop due to bad weather.

Hilal Ahmad Malik, a Qazigund businessman who runs a similar effort on this side of the Pir Panchal.

Mudasir along with other 14 NGO members trekked towards the hilltop. The group was accompanied by Banihal Police. At the hilltop, they found three of the four labourers had died due to hypothermia while one was still alive whom the group provided hot water and tea to drink in their bid to make his cold body warm. All the three dead bodies along with the one who survived was brought down and handed over to their families.

Qazigund’s Hilal

A similar effort with the same motive is underway on the other side of the Pir Panjal Range at Qazigund. Only the faces are different. Here it is Hilal Ahmad Malik’s group. While attending to his customers at his eatery, Malik keeps scanning his WhatsApp and Facebook page to see if he had received any message for help from the people travelling on the highway.

Malik’s cell phone often flickers due to calls and messages requesting for help. Though he tries to attend every call and message, the flow is so much that he leaves many of them unanswered. Once he gets the news of any major road accident he immediately drives in his own car towards the spot and starts the rescue operation. Sometimes he is accompanied by some volunteers while most of the time he goes alone.

Malik, 28, a resident of Matigund, in Dooru is familiar with the highway as he has spent some years working at the toll collection post-Qazigund before opening his eatery.

Accidents on the  266-km highway have become an everyday affair, particularly during winters.  “The lives of many injured in these accidents could  be saved if they reach a nearby medical facility on time,” Malik said.

Syed Mudasir, the No 2 in Banihal Volunteers.

Two years ago Malik decided to volunteer for the people in need of help on the highway in accidents. He gradually started building his contacts who update him about the day to day mishaps. In March 2018, he launched his Facebook page Jammu Srinagar National Highway updates through which he keeps his followers up to date about the traffic movement on the highway. The page has more than 90,000 followers now.

The One Man Army

Malik remembers the day vividly when a tourist cab moving towards Srinagar met with an accident near Qazigund. He immediately drove to the spot.

“On reaching the spot, I found some tourists unconscious, bleeding” Malik remembers.  “With the help of locals, I immediately put them in my car and drove them towards the nearby health facility and fortunately, all of them survived.”

Malik is one of the known faces on the Highway at Qazigund. Majority of the people particularly truckers who frequent the highway know Malik very well. Malik does not only provide help to the people at the accident spot but also offers his helping hand to almost all those drivers and travellers who face trouble. Malik uses his online and offline contacts to help them and never asks for money.

Volunteers retrieving the dead bodies from a road accident on the highway in March 2017.

A trucker Gulzar Ahmad Hargah of Gadole Kokernag who was on his way to Jammu said he knows Malik very well. Hargah is still feeling grateful to Malik because of the help Malik provided his friend when one day his friend’s truck halted near the Jawahar tunnel due to some technical snag.

“It was Malik whom we contacted at that time. He made a call to one of his contacts near Jawahar tunnel who then sent a mechanic to us,” Hargah recalled. This is probably one of the reasons why many truckers who often drive on this highway offer donations in cash to Malik which he always rejects.

“Malik is doing a wonderful job by providing help to almost all those who travel on this highway. He sets up community kitchens for the needy at different places in the district. We are proud of him” a local, Asif Manzoor Itoo said.

To provide 24X7 hours service to all those who meet with accidents or anyone who faces any serious trouble while travelling on this highway Malik is planning to set up his own NGO under the name Helping Hands on Roads.

Apart from the offline service, Malik is also providing online service to the people. Through his Facebook page and WhatsApp groups, he updates the netizens about the movement of traffic on the highway. Malik said he has a contact in the traffic department who updates him about the movement of the traffic on the highway.

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