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The Rediff Special/Chindu Sreedharan
A nightmare revisited
On November 12, 1996, Charkhi Dadri, a little village in Haryana's
Bhiwani district, 80 kilometres west of Delhi, witnessed the worst air
accident in Indian history. A just-airborne Saudi Arabian Airlines
flight, bound for Jeddah with 312 people abroad, collided with an
incoming Kazakhstan aircraft at 14,000 feet. There were no survivors.
On the first anniversary of the accident,
On the first anniversary of the accident,Chindu Sreedharan visits the site.
Nothing stirs, there is no sign of life, nor of death, on farmer Sharma's four-and-a-half acres of land in Charkhi Dadri this evening.
Newly tilled, it bares its insides in neat rows of brown, lined through and through with gram seedlings, the few thorny jhakadi trees on it standing like sentries on duty -- steady, sullen and silent, oblivious to the slight November wind trying to rustle its leaves.
It's well past 5 now. Except for the farmer and his guests, there is no one on the field within eyesight. Deserted, and bathed in the last rays of a dying sun, the brown sea of soil portrays the essence of rustic beauty -- unruffled, peaceful, quiet
No, there's nothing on this gram field that tells you this was the scene of the worst air tragedy in Indian aviation history; nothing to give you an inkling that on this particular evening a year ago, two flights, each travelling at over 500 kilometres per hour, collided 14,000 feet overhead, producing an impact 700 times more than a powerful car crash; nothing to say that in an eternity lost somewhere between 6.41 and 6.42 pm, dead bodies and debris rained on it from a jumbo Saudi carrier.
Nothing on first sight, that is.
But as Sharma walks through the loose soil, he steps on something which, when prodded with the tip of his shoes, reveals itself to be a jagged reminiscent of the tragedy. Five hundred tonnes of wreckage, though spread over seven kilometres, it proves, is more than what 365 days can erase.
"Yeh plane ki andar ka hain, (this is from inside the plane)," the farmer says, displaying a piece of hard plastic, "We keep on getting these every now and then. There are still plenty around."
He tosses it away and continues towards the site where parts of the Boeing-747 fuselage fell. Now there is no 18-feet crater, no blackened soil around it. The soil, brown and healthy, shows no superficial sign of the gallons of fuel which burnt on it. The old sand, Sharma says, has been shifted and over 300 tractor loads of fresh "usse upar hoga" -- sand brought in.
"The Saudi airlines people gave us some compensation," Sharma says, "But not enough."
"How much?" he is asked.
"Not much. They compensated me Rs 72,000, for two crops." Sharma replies, "The others (the surrounding farmers on whose land debris fell) got Rs 8,000 each."
Last year, when the accident occurred, the farm had sprouts all over. But the fire on site charred it to a black mass.
"The Saudi airlines people paid for that partly. But the sand they brought us was not enough. We had to bring in over 100 tractor loads more at our own expense," he says, "Come, I will show you something."
Sharma moves over the crater that was, to almost where his farm ended, towards a jhakadi tree. And promptly stumbles on another relic. This time it is a long string of padding, the kind you use in sofas and seats, which has wrapped itself around his foot. He bends to disentangle it.
"Ek banda iss ped ke uuppar latak raha tha (one of the passengers was hanging from up there)," he points towards the tree. When the villagers rushed to the tree, the passenger, still sitting on his seat, was largely intact, but very, very dead. "See, you can see pieces of clothes on the thorns even now."
He is right. Still pinned to the thorns are bits and pieces of clothing, well faded by sun and time, but still intact. There is a dirty green ragged piece, not more than 10 feet overhead. And there is another, slightly higher, just within reach if you jumped with stretched arms.
"Yeh tho air hostess ki hai," Sharma pronounces, "This is their uniform."
Seeing the look of disbelief on our face, he goes on. "Arre bhai, I should know. I was in Saudi Arabia for 10 years I have taken this same flight many times!"
"There are so many things still strewn around in this field," he continues, "Last month, I got a whisky bottle and two glasses!"
"Yes, intact," he says, "And very good foreign whisky it was!"
The farmer is now walking towards the deserted road which connects his village with Kheri Sansal. Come sundown, he says, the road is as good as non-existent for the villagers.
"Ghosts," comes the answer, "350 people died here,bhai. None of us can forget that. Now, very few use this road after six. If the villagers want to go to Sansal they take a roundabout route."
Soon after the incident, the villagers of Dhani-Pagot, Kheri Sansal and Charkhi Dadri had got together and performed two havans (rites to exorcise ghosts) at the site. The ghost thesis, in fact, was so powerful that for the first three months, the locals, even in day time, used to cross the site at a run. Now, things are not so bad, yet the fear of the supernatural still persists, with reports of strange sounds and ghosts still on the haunt.
"No, no, it is true," insists Arun Kumar, a milkman whom we stop on the road, "Abhi bhi awaaz aati hai (Even now one can hear noises). I have heard it myself. Like a dog howling."
"How come you are taking the road today?" we ask him, "Not scared anymore?"
"Not as much as before," he says, "Anyway, it happens mostly on Tuesday and Friday, not Wednesday."
Kumar moves on. And the clock ticks towards the mishap hour of last year.
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