Salvaging Lives

A youth from Srinagar’s Balgarden locality rescued a pregnant lady, army rescuers, paramilitary personnel; arranged relief material for hundreds inside a Batamaloo relief camp and fished out photojournalist Shafat Sidiq’s body. Bilal Handoo details the heroics of youth after their chance meeting

Mudasir Sofi

A haunting evening had blanketed Srinagar. It was September 20, 2014. The clock had just struck 7:45 PM. Many parts of the city were flooded. Near Iqbal Park, I was walking alone alarmed by darkness and occasional dog barks. A strong stench had filled the ambience. The light was missing, so was life. Nobody was visible on roads. Only a fortnight ago, the place like other parts of Srinagar was bustling with life. But September 7 changed everything. A historic flood devastated the summer capital and subsequently reduced it into a ghost town.

I could see a flashlight piercing the darkness. It was coming from Rambagh side. Somebody was seemingly riding on two-wheelers. I was getting hopeful, impatiently hopeful to secure a lift from an anonymous rider during odd hours on road hauntingly absent from traffic.

Standing at a lane leading to Batamaloo, I waved my hands at the approaching vehicle. But to my dismay, the scooty whizzed past me. But it abruptly stopped nearby. I swiftly ran and within the next few seconds, I was riding with a stranger in the total dark cover.

In between deserted surrounding and dead silence, none of us exchanged a word. Close to Batamaloo, the vehicle paused without disrupting a march of flood-hit around. “It was a narrow escape,” he spoke for the first time. “Jhelum was simply in a very bad mood.” I quickly replied: “Yes, you are right. I believe it is our rebirth.”

As the rush reduced, the ride resumed. “So, where are you from?” I asked him. “Balgarden,” he quickly replied. “You know what,” he said, “flood literally created havoc in our locality. Most of the houses there are still inundated and scores of them have developed huge cracks.”

He stopped at a local chemist’s shop in the interiors of Batamaloo for buying some medicines. The light coming of chemist’s shop lit up his face. For the first time, I could see a grave-looking young man sporting stub. “This area was totally submerged a week ago,” he said. “I am literally on toes ever since the flood hit us.”

After crossing the road near the fire and emergency services department, he suddenly halted the ride. “Can you see this spot, this, near the petrol pump? This is where I fished out the body of a journalist. His name… What was his name? I tell you, wait. His name… His name…Umm…Umm… Yes, Shafat Sidiq!”

We sat at his favourite spot, a shop front, near SMC office. “After many days I am back here,” he said. “I and my doctor friend often spent time here.”

And then, he started spinning his own story.

* * *

My name is Mudasir Sofi. I work in PHE department. On September 7, an alarming morning woke me up. A flood panic had spread in our area like wildfire. After stepping outside, I heard flood had breached bund near Sutra Shahi, a locality behind civil secretariat. Within no time, the flood submerged Shaheed Ganj, district police lines and subsequently Balgarden. As the level of water rose, I made multiple rounds outside to fetch some essentials. On my last round, the water had risen to about 4 ft. I climbed on the neighbour’s wall to visit the market, but I hardly knew that I wouldn’t be returning home for the next six days.

After informing my parents, I along with my friend went to Highway. I saw the most heart-wrenching scenes there. People hailing from different economic, social and religious backgrounds were together huddled on roads.

On my return to Batamaloo, I took shelter in a nearby spacious house. At the end of the day, a crowd of about 250 people assembled there. They gave us food for the night. On the next day morning, I took some boys with me.  We arranged some eatables for the flood-hit inside that residence-turned-refuge centre. While searching food, I saw people in desperation breaking into makeshift fruit and vegetable stalls at Batamaloo market.

Some people were resorting to black marketing in that dark period, but I roughed them up to correct their behaviour. Meanwhile, the water level was rising dangerously. One large boat carrying a pregnant lady along with three men was caught in flood apparently behaving like a sea caught in tempest near fire and emergency service department. There was something peculiar about that spot. The water was flowing ferociously there unlike other spots and thus making the onward movement of boats impossible.

It was late evening when I along with others rescued the pregnant lady and men with her. After treating her at a local clinic, we send her home in a small boat along with men.

Meanwhile, five days passed but no rescue team showed up. It was then I took a small boat and went to the interior parts of Balgarden. Once there, the locals desperately asked for drinking water and milk. I went back to the relief camp and arranged whatever I could for them.

In between, I saw an army boat caught in the floods near the fire and emergency department. Sensing threat to their lives, I rescued them. They later told me that their motorboat stopped working near Jehangir Hotel, but the ferocious flood floated their boat as far as to Batamaloo beyond their control. They were in the city for a rescue operation with only eight boats which were already in use at Jawahar Nagar and Rajbagh. “Your own state government has 30 boats, 15 water-scooters, besides there are plenty of boats in Nigeen Lake. What stops the state government to use them? We can’t save everyone,” one of them told me.

Later I rescued four CRPF personnel stranded at Balgarden area and took them to the relief camp.

On the sixth day, the water level came down. I went home climbing over fences. I met my family after six days. They were delighted to see me. But after meeting them briefly, I again left for the relief camp.

While rowing near petrol pump close to district police lines, I saw a swelled cloth visible on the way of my boat. I tried to displace it, but the very weight of it made it too heavy to move. I again tried but failed. While I was doing it, some eight or ten fire brigade personnel were watching from their department building, as if in amusement. I forcibly moved it only to be shocked. It was a corpse! The very sight left me numb. I yelled at fire brigade personnel for help, but they stood where they were: watching the drama of sorts.

I instructed my friend on the boat to grasp the body while I went to call my other friends. With their help, I fished out the body and placed it on a nearby sidewalk. There were an identity card and a camera hanging from his neck. We traced his address from his identity card. His name was Shafat Sidiq, a photojournalist from Ali Kadal. My doctor friend after examining the body, said: “He has died with a strike on his head and not by drowning.” He further said that probably he might have fallen and landed on a hard surface before drowning. I later came to know that he was on assignment for Dainik Jagran on September 7, the day he went missing.

Shafat Siddiqui, Kashmir photo-journalist who was killed by the 2014 floods while capturing the crisis. A KL Image

Anyway, I saw a truck packed with around 50 passengers moving around. I along with my friends stopped it and told the driver about the urgency. He agreed and then some of my friends took his body home.

On the last day before returning home, I saw one boat caught in water currents. On the boat were crying women, children and a few men. I swiftly ran towards them and took them ashore.

* * *

By the time he finished speaking, Karan Nagar fresh from flood fury appeared to have donned a disturbing look. No mortal was visible, except two strangers sitting on a shop front. Suddenly his cellphone rang up. His family still caught in the flood was calling him home.

Well before he started riding home, he said: “You earlier asked me my most relieved moment during the rescue. I believe I should tell you that before leaving. For me, fishing out Shafat Sidiq’s body and then sending it to his home will always be the most contented moment of my life. I played a small part in his last reunion with his family.”

With these words, he departed leaving me alone amid the haunted Srinagar.

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