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Heroes: J & K Floods: The Unsung Heroes of Rescue Operations - 5

Read the previous part here : Part 4 

Here are 15 numbers : 

200+: Number of people reported to have died in the state in its worst floods in 109 years.

110,000: Official number of people rescued so far by the armed forces and National Disaster Response Force from different parts of the state.

30,000: Strength of the troops for rescue and relief operations deployed by the Indian Army (21,000 in Srinagar region and 9,000 in Jammu region)

20,000: Houses partially or completely damaged across the state.

2,500: Number of livestock said to be perished in the floods.

19: Relief camps set up by the Army in Jammu and Kashmir, housing at least 20,000 flood-affected people, and provisions are made to distribute essential food items and water bottles to them.

120,000: Number of bottles per day that six water filtration plants transported to Srinagar will produce.

10,700: Number of blankets provided to flood victims.

1,081: Sorties undertaken by the armed forces helicopters and aircraft

1,411: Tonnes of relief materials dropped.

31,500: Food packets airdropped and distributed by armed forces.

5700: Personnel included in the five task forces of Border Roads Organisation pressed into service since September 10.

1082: Number of tents (each to house eight people) supplied by the Indian Red Cross Society so far. In addition, it has sent 750 tarpaulins and 1000 kitchen sets.

300,000: 'Rail Neer' bottles sent by Railways to the flood-hit Jammu and Kashmir.

Deafening cries for help jolted journalist Riffat Abdullah out of his fourth floor house as swirling flood waters entered Srinagar's upscale Rajbagh locality after breaching nearby Jhelum river's embankment. He began calling frantically from top authorities for help as water level touched second floor. But nothing worked. The phone lines soon snapped. This left him with no option but to jump into the flood waters. He swam across to the river and got a boat, which he then used to rescue people along with more volunteers, who gathered immediately risking their own lives. The volunteers managed to get ropes and carried people on their backs. Abdullah alone saved 300 people. Like others, he too was caught unawares when the killer waters slammed into his neighbourhood, submerged buildings and washed away people, animals and cars.

"We thought we would die. But once we got rescued, we thought it was my duty to do this (rescue) work after saving my own family," he said. Abdullah continued saving lives while in the line of duty during which he documented unfolding tragedy at a nearby maternity hospital, where doctors had abandoned patients. "I saw babies dying." He said the first response should have come from disaster management authorities, but it came from the local people. "Everyone was crying... people swam in 20-30 feet flood waters. There was no other option." Abdullah and his fellow volunteers not just saved people around Rajbagh but also shifted them to a nearby hillock three kilometres away, where they were again left to fend for themselves for four days. "I was on the hillock for four days but no food packets were dropped. Five to six thousand people were there. There was this hope they would at least they would drop water.'' He saluted hundreds of volunteers for their extraordinary job. "They were better, better than me. I am not the only person who did it," he insisted.

Abdullah's bravery, which was incidentally filmed, has inspired many Kashmiris, many of whom have flown back from abroad, to volunteer for rescue and relief work. Shujaat Bukhari, a journalist for close to two decades, is among them. He has covered some of the worst atrocities in Kashmir and miraculously survived more than once. But the catastrophic floods are the worst he has seen. This has galvanised many volunteers like him into action. Bukhari slips into a life vest in the morning to work as a volunteer in flood-hit areas and returns to his office to edit his newspaper in the evening. Like tens of thousands of Kashmiris, he was trapped in his house in a relatively safer area near the airport. He was clueless about the fate of his relatives and colleagues, who were trapped in his newspaper office in central Srinagar, which was under 15 feet water. Bukhari managed to reach his office on Thursday and was terrified to see the destruction caused. The city looked ravaged with residents and tourists huddled together in groups on rooftops waiting for rescuers.

Bukhari's lawyer friend, Sajjad Sheikh, rushed to Delhi and returned with an inflatable boat for the rescue work. Their team of volunteers on Saturday evacuated 100 people, mostly tourists, from two hotels and houses in central Srinagar that has turned into a large swamp. Rescuing 90-year-old Onkar Nath Bhat and his wife, Dulari Bhat, from their house gave him the greatest happiness. The real magnitude of the tragedy was getting clear to many like Bukhari, as the water levels receded. "A youth who was to get married in Jawahar Nagar is missing after his mehndiraat (a day before wedding). Bride still has henna on her hands but the groom untraceable," said Bukhari. "You can imagine the state of affairs by the fact that our team provided medicines to 177 battalion of CRPF in Wazir Bagh. They said they are 70 in number," he said. The scale of the disaster practically washed away the local government, as many top officials had to be rescued. Most cabinet ministers were untraceable for days following the communications breakdown, leaving local volunteers and the Army to do the bulk of the rescue work.

Tens of thousands were trapped in the swirling waters and the exact number of deaths is not known even today. And with no officials in sight, people were left to fend for themselves. Soon after the city turned into a lake, the Indian army and air force provided the only government presence. But they too could not cope with the situation and were even accused of being selective in rescuing the people. In this situation, local volunteers emerged as a ray of hope for those who were stranded. On 8 September, as I went out to rescue the relatives, I saw fellow citizens not affected by the floods going to the flooded areas to get the marooned people out. With the help of a friend I succeeded in evacuating my relatives and inspired by the selflessness of the volunteers, I decided to make rescue my mission for the following eight days. In the past week, I saw that whoever was in a position to reach a flooded area was on the street to help the thousands of people who were trapped and those who had safely come to the shore. Many homes and key buildings in Srinagar remain submerged. Truckloads of relief material, such as fresh vegetables, rice, flour, fruit, water and other essentials have been sent.Though unorganised in nature, this network of volunteers is doing a commendable job on the ground that is still under water. In the absence of boats, they have made rafts by joining plastic drums, truck tubes, and wooden poles to reach out to the stranded people. I was surprised to see that even those whose homes were under water were out to rescue others.Sajjad Sheikh, a lawyer, told me he had hardly slept for more than four hours a day for the past nine days. He took out a loan of 350,000 rupees and has been going around rescuing people for more than 12 hours a day. "I raised a loan to buy the boat, but it was necessary. Who could I go begging to for a boat to save my people?" he said. There are many like Mr Sheikh who have made a difference in Kashmir in the last few days - non- governmental organisations like the Zakat Foundation are running boats with help from Kashmiri volunteers and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) is doing a good job in rescuing people. I met Muhammad Ali Lone, a senior government officer who was helping pull out a boat stuck in deep waters. "I do it for God," he tells me.

The volunteers have been doing a fine job of rescuing people and distributing aid. Free food is being distributed along the roadside to the "homeless" and tents with community kitchens have come up on the grounds of mosques.Many youth have also acted as voluntary traffic regulators to direct cars and rescue vehicles through narrow lanes and by-lanes, as the main roads were closed."If we don't do this, there will be chaos and confusion and the already traumatised people will suffer 
more," said Musadiq Ahmad, one of the volunteers.With the sun starting to shine in recent days, Srinagar has seen people from the other parts of Kashmir starting to bring in relief to the city and the situation appears to be easing now. When I step out every morning, I see new medical camps that have been set up to treat the sick.With the three big hospitals - SHMHS Hospital, Lal Ded Maternity Hospital and GB Pant Childrens' Hospital - still flooded, privately-owned Ahmed Hospital is the only medical facility here catering to those who need immediate attention."We have thrown our doors open. But we have no medicine and there is no electricity," hospital owner Asif Khanday said. Many doctors and nurses have come out voluntarily to manage the camps. "The magnitude of the tragedy is huge and we are heading towards a health emergency," said Dr Yasir Wani who is working at one such camp. The floods are one of the biggest challenges the Kashmir Valley has faced in recent years, but the compassion shown by Kashmiris towards their fellow beings gives me the hope that we will overcome these most difficult times.

Among the tales of misery in the flooded city of Srinagar, there are stories of many "unsung heroes" who risked their lives to save many stranded persons. "Even before the Army, the police or anybody from the civil administration could reach us, we were rescued by locals who risked their own lives to save us," said Inderjeet Singh, a resident of Jammu who works at the state health department.As soon as the news of the flooding spread in the city, many local residents rushed in to help the stranded people. "We are thankful to the unknown boys who rushed to the house where we all were staying, made way into it and saved our entire family from drowning," said Abdul Aziz, a resident of Poonch district who was waiting for his turn to fly back home in an Indian Air Force plane.

Many people who were rescued say that they owe their lives to the local volunteers who jumped in to save them. "Death was imminent as the water level continued to rise and the rain did not stop. We thought that we were going to die and had taken shelter on the third floor of the house". "It was only when some young men came in a boat to rescue us that we took a sigh of relief," said Misbha, wife of Aziz while holding her three-year-old daughter and five-year-old son in her lap. Across Srinagar city there are hundreds of local residents who volunteered to help the stranded residents. "These young men did not care for their own lives and rushed to save us. They reached us at a time when nobody from the Army, police or other government establishment could reach us," said Murtaza Ahmed, a resident of Pir Bagh locality who is now taking shelter at a local hotel.

Not only the volunteers saved of the stranded people but also made arrangements of food and shelter. "We keep on hearing about violence in Kashmir Valley, but on ground we saw the humanitarian side of Kashmir, as residents in the unaffected areas opened up their houses for unknown people and provided them with food and shelter," said Anil Kumar (37), a resident of New Delhi.

My Friend from Jammu, Srishti was very worried as she could not get through to her relatives and had no news about them and when I told her to tag Indian Army in her SOS tweets, she felt a sigh of relief. This was her reaction afterwards-

I am scared for only one family personally- Parna, the houseboat owner who was my host last year in 2013 when I had gone to Srinagar. The man who treated us for 5 days. I shudder to think that what would have happened to his houseboat and his family... I still havent managed to make contact with him.
Heroes: J & K Floods: The Unsung Heroes of Rescue Operations - 5 Heroes: J & K Floods: The Unsung Heroes of Rescue Operations - 5 Reviewed by Shwetabh on 11:00:00 AM Rating: 5

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