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J&K relief work: An eyewitness account
Anand Kumar Sahay on the Uri-Muzaffarabad road, North Kashmir | October 11, 2005 03:35 IST
There could be thousands in there, I thought, as I sat with exhausted relief volunteers at the bottom of a gorge, surveying the rubble – all that remained one of those mountain villages with picturesque Pahari and Gujar names after the earth shuddered mightily on Saturday morning.
The official figures are only a third of what I believe, but I expect that, with verification, the toll will rise. Already, in two days, the figure has risen three-fold as more bodies have been pulled out from beneath the debris.
According to various sources, including army personnel, the hard-worked men of the state's Fire and Emergency Services, and the 30-odd volunteers of the Human Aid Society from Baramullah, delay intensified the tragedy: until last night, about 36 hours after the earth shook the villages to sticks and crumbled stone, civilian government authorities had not reached Kamalkote, the largest village in the area, with about 600 huts. What little we know of these places come from those in the FES and the HAS.
But now even the FES men are exhausted, having trudged up and down the steep hills for 30 hours trying to rescue people and clear debris in the few villages that were not entirely flattened. The HAS group has pooled its scant resources, silently climbing for an hour the steep slope to the isolated village of Sultan Daki.
The group members were weighed down medicines, food, and some bottled water, currently the most precious commodity in the area.
Earlier, there was no dearth of water. But now the streams that were a source of cool, mineral-rich water are laced with a black viscous substance that seismic movements freed from the tortured earth. The sludge has found its way into the Jhelum flowing below.
If the civilian authorities were taking their time, the army was sticking it out. From day one, its helicopters tirelessly carted back the dead and injured – both military and civilian. About 40 soldiers (including those of the Border Security Force) had died when their bunkers collapsed on them or when the hill moved.
Still, according to army and FES personnel, the death toll in Kamalkote alone could be between 600 and 700, if not more. Some HAS volunteers spoke of the heartbreaking job they had, of reading the 'namaz-e-janaza' (funeral prayers) for two children of Sultan Daki.
The number of dead here – the figure has not been totted up because there is still so much debris to be cleared – is believed to be around 300. Most houses have been flattened though the damaged village mosque and high school still stand.
We must not have been more than a kilometre from the Line of Control. On the road skirting a gorge, volunteers of various social organisations have parked their vehicles.
The road itself is packed with army and BSF vans, and trucks ferrying the sick and wounded from the more easily accessible villages along the LOC.
At any other time, the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus would have been winding up this road, before crossing the Kaman Setu (the command bridge) – about eight kilometers from where we were – and find its way into Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. That was where the epicentre of the earthquake lay, and the death toll there is believed to be in the tens of thousands.
Being on the frontier has its disadvantages. But the people here have the army brigade in Uri to thank for the quick relief and rescue operations mounted. It is because of the army that Sultan Daki, a large village of 2,500 people, got its first taste of water in 30 hours.
I saw jawans of the Army Supply Corps teaming up with voluntary workers, working tirelessly to lug relief material up the treacherous slopes. And this co-operation between members of the military and civilians could mean the difference between living and dying for many.
In contrast with the new respect for the army, criticism is mounting against the civil administration for its monumental slowness to respond. It should have been easy enough for the authorities to have relief supplies sent, at least to the bottom of the hills, so that volunteers could carry them up.
At was about 5 pm, I saw the local police chief, battery-powered megaphone in hand, and the deputy commissioner of police, arguing with the locals about the seriousness of the crisis, while also urging the locals to provide details about those dead and their immediate needs.
Where had they been the past two days, the irate locals demanded. And how had they remained so ignorant of ground realities and their immediate needs?
These needs, besides drinking water, are tents and blankets. Many people have already spent two nights under the open sky, the first lashed by heavy rain, and more bad weather augured ill for them.
The worst-affected villages still remain inaccessible by road, because the earthquake has destroyed the tracks to them from the Uri-Muzaffarabad road. Until these are restored in a few days, volunteers, carrying a few bottles of water and packs of food, may have to endure the day's trek to these villages.
This earthquake is the severest to hit Kashmir since the one on May 30, 1885.
Residents of Baramullah and Uri described the swaying of concrete structures without irony as a kind of "break-dance." For the first time in their lives, they said, they saw orchard apples being violently slung out from tree branches. They never want to see that again.