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Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Times Of India

Thursday,12 August 2010

Walking the valley of death

Tarun Vijay

I just returned from Leh and thought I should share with you what I saw there.

t was the Indus valley we used to go to almost every year since 1996 when the festival of the Indus, the Sindhu Darshan, was conceived. It was the same valley we entered this year with sadness and disbelief writ large on our faces. Looked as if we were going to enter a valley of death and misery.

I was in Dehradun organizing the opening of my parliamentary office that the news of the Leh tragedy struck me. Sindhu made Leh my second home with a friend almost in every home and gompa. It was impossible not to visit the place but tickets were not available.

Somehow, Anuj, founding member of Sindhu Darshan and a long-time friend, managed and almost direct from Delhi's Nizamuddin station I reached the airport to catch a morning IC flight, praying it won't be cancelled on account of bad weather or something else. The plane was full of Army jawans and members of the media.

We spoke nothing. There was hardly anything that could have engaged us in a discussion. The silence was the only support. Silence born out of the fear of the unknown. Silence borne out of the fear of losing the known and the unknown. At 30,000 feet my mind was engrossed in Choglumsar, where in a guesthouse with Mr LK Advani we had first seen the Indus and the seed of a festival was sown that would change the economy of the area in coming years.

Choglumsar was the village worst hit -- almost everything got washed away, and houses were buried under the silt and the huge boulders the flash flood had brought with the speed of light.

Leh, at 11,500 feet and a rarefied oxygen level, requires visitors to take rest at least for the first 12 hours and a lot of liquid intake. That is a prescription for normal times. We just sped to the city, to see deputy commissioner Angchuk. He was a picture of anarchic disorder -- surrounded by people, taking calls from Delhi and Srinagar, giving hopes and notes of a positive situation. "Everything is under control, sir." He knew he didn't know what he was saying but what else could he have said to the armchair secretaries and politicians calling him ad nauseam?

I contacted Brigadier Kanitkar and Lt Gen SK Singh of the 14 Corps and then Brigadier Ajay Kumar, deputy general officer commanding of 3 Div, Trishul. They were all engrossed in relief work. It's another war, said Gen Singh. I agreed. The war against the inhuman fury of nature and the war to provide succor to the distressed. The Army appeared as a new god to the traumatized Ladakhis, whose memory failed to recollect if ever this kind of havoc had befallen them.

The first people to reach a dumbstruck Choglumsar, were Army jawans and RSS workers; the RSS was holding an annual camp nearby, so all the campers rushed to the site rescuing wailing and crying people. They organized help, informed Delhi's leaders, started a langar the next day and set up a fund -- Ladakh Disaster Relief Fund. But they were not alone. Almost everyone who was anyone began working without delay. The Ladakh Buddhist Association was a pioneer with Sikh, Christian and Muslim associations and Ladakh Mothers' Association.

The road to Choglumsar looked like a pathway to the valley of death and destruction. The bus station, Sonam Narboo Memorial Hospital, shops and houses near the ITBP headquarters, Kendriya Vidyalaya, State Bank's branch, everything was mangled as if a giant dinosaur had descended as an Extra-Terrestrial and chewed away in its jaws all that it saw. The road was hardly visible. Just the bulldozers and small trucks loaded with household things, some trunks, clothes dumped, gas cylinders, mattresses and kids clinging to their lucky-to-have-survived parents sitting on top of it.

The village was buried underneath. We walked up to the Army relief camp, where Brig Ajay was directing his men with digging instruments, medicines and food plates for the victims. At every step, we felt we are walking on the dead. The earth sank at each step; there was a home under us, a kitchen or a baithak, where people were in deep sleep when the flood flashed. Many of them couldn't get a second to run out. Silt came gushing in with huge boulders from the hill top which turned like deadly balls crushing houses and humans. The area is a tourist spot known the world over as Moon Land. Barren magical mountains reflecting a vibgyor spectrum, blue, black, violet, orange, brown, steel grey and dark chocolate. It's a land of rocks, mighty boulders, sand dunes and lyrical streams dotted with romantic lakes with the moon in a clear transparent sky as if it's a next-door neighbour.

Everything was dead now. The macabre dance of death was unimaginable. Lamas were joining the digging work, with foreigners who had come here as tourists from Italy, Germany, Japan, Korea and Israel, but offered to be volunteers in the rescue operations. Doctors from Delhi, Mumbai and Vadodara offered help and operated on patients in the 153 Army Hospital, said Colonel (Dr) Anurag Khanna, commanding officer of the hospital. Houses in Saboo and Choglumsar were either invisibly buried under earth or half-buried in silt, with household things, utensils on the rack, pictures hanging on the walls, thankas on the walls and the Dalai Lama's portraits clearly visible from broken window panes. Two women walked down to us like souls possessed. "Have you seen this?" they said, showing us pictures of their relatives. Sisters were searching brothers and mothers wailed for their lost children.

The entire area stank intolerably. The stink of the dead bodies buried under our feet. New channels of water had created fresh havoc with skeleton bridges made of wooden doors and poplar branches coming up where there had been homes a couple of hours back. Inside the half-buried houses or those which had their foundations washed away with just the upper part standing like a toy house hanging on a tree, had silt filled inside the rooms up to seven or eight feet. It will turn into stones soon, said Ajay, making it almost impossible to find the bodies buried in the moulds. It was a whole city turned into a burial ground.

Thupstan Chhewang, the firebrand youth leader of the eighties, who led the locals against a historic revolt against the communal oppression of Srinagar, looked a broken man. Nothing is working here, he said. "The J&K government doesn't treat us as equal citizens of the state. Our hospital doesn't have an x-ray machine, not even a morgue. The unidentified bodies are lying in the open, decomposing and spreading the stink in the city. Even when all was normal, postmortems were conducted in a garage. The government didn't give us even a CT-scan machine, which we managed from Tata Trust."

Dorjey, the chief executive officer of the Ladakh Hill Development Council, the local administrative unit, said: "We had applied for a Rs 83 crore flood relief scheme, offered by the Centre three years back, to the J&K government, as it needed to reach Delhi through their recommendation. The minister in charge in Srinagar laughed it away saying, "Floods??? In Ladakh?? What do you need this money for?"

The Ladakhis had applied to the government for upgradation of their local hospital to a 200-bed one, under the government's National Health Mission scheme. The application is yet to be approved. An area of 48 thousand sq km, with a border with China and Pakistan stretching from Skardu and Baltistan (illegally occupied by Pakistan) to Aksai Chin (under illegal occupation of China), Ladakh has borne the first brunt of war since the 1950s, winning Mahavir Chakras and many more war-time decorations. The planners ignore all its demands to progress and infrastructure, looking at its population, a little more than 200,000.

But they don't understand that the area of this one "district" is more than Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana. One revenue district often spreads out to an 80 sq km area with a road needed to join two localities (modhas or mohallas) as long as 45 kms! And because they do not pelt stones on Army jawans, stand in respect for the tricolour, and sing the national anthem in every school with pride and cries of "Bharat Mata ki Jai", they get political boots from the "secularists" in Delhi. Money is spent like water to divide the Buddhist society and political ravines created to weaken their voices. "They want us to become like Hurriyat and demand independence, and only then our basic demands will be met," said one local leader with bitterness.

It may take a year before Leh returns to some kind of a bruised normalcy. Memory of the missing people is bringing a sense of fear enveloped in trauma. Come October and winter will bring more misery; tents won't suffice. New houses can is built only next year when summer begins in March-April. Wrecked families and unfound bodies of the dear ones will be an emotional disaster.

Ladakh today needs warmth of belongingness and affinity more than anything else.

Life is like that ... just the mortal being

Saving a woman and her sweet, little baby

Life saved

And the soil embraced its elements

Bodies kept for identification

The last remains

The pain is writ large on the face

A journey of some sort

Clearing the debris

A war of nerves

Distribution of sleeping bags by jawans

Finding a new desitination

Waiting rudderless at a chhorten (prayer wheel)

ITBP free langar

Muslim women hurrying up to reach a relief camp

With whatever retrieved, a 'home' in rucksack and suitcase, reaching the camp

Stony questions

Jawans helping a last journey

Helping hands in olive

This time it's a belcha fauz, without rifles

Once this was a home

Sil, and the silence

A bagful of memories

A trunk of history

Last-ditch efforts

With five feet of silt filling the room, utensils in
the shelf look untouched, may be someone is buried there

Petrol pump in a shambles

Thupstan Chhewang receiving a little medical help from Tarun Vijay

Brig Ajay Kumar of 3 Div (Trishul) supervising rescue work

Famous Sindhu Ghats remained untouched by nature's fury

Relief camps in the foothills and a makeshift hospital

Casualty section of SNM Hospital turned into a casualty itself;
22 people died in this hospital

Unidentified decomposing bodies in the garage of hospital
as Leh doesn't have a morgue

Requesting tourists to register as volunteers,
members of Ladakh Buddhist Association

The man who directed helping hands of God,
Lt Gen SK Singh, corps commander, 14th Corps

Maj Chitra Mukherjee and Brig Datta explaining the condition of a
traumatized Ladakhi woman to the author.
Col Anurag Khanna is the chief of this Army hospital, which
proved a life saver for the victims

Pictures of admitted patients are flashed on computer
screen in Army hospital to help searching relatives

Finding the names of their dead on the list pasted by
authorities on the walls of hospital

A woman labourer from Chhattisgarh

Dorjey, the chief of local government, Ladakh autonomous Hill
Development Council, telling the bitter truth
about Srinagar's discrimination with Ladakh

Unidentified bodies are kept in the open for identification

Silt and boulders buried homes underneath.
It seemed we might be walking over buried dead bodies

Dr Anil, who led the RSS rescue team at Choglumsar

Chaos at airport: no credit cards, fewer flights and exorbitant fares

A car stuck in the upper floor of a building

little girl cuddling her teddy bear
in an Army relief camp at Choglumsar

Going for food with mother

A relief-fund raiser at
Leh's Jamia mosque

Vehicles flew in with flood
and got stuck like this