One year after floods, a Kashmir family’s silent story of loss

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SRINAGAR: On 7 September last year as the flood devastated Srinagar, Asif Khursheed, 37, a bank executive was marooned in his rented accommodation at upscale Rajbagh on Extension 101 opposite the Hurriyat office. When the first floor went under the water, the family took refuge in the second storey.

On the following day when a volunteer with a boat arrived at their window urging them to leave, they were relieved. Except for Asif who couldn’t find space, the rest of the family comprising his mother Hajira, wife Kashifa and three small daughters Tarawat, Rahat and Sarwat got on the boat to be taken to safety.

Before leaving, 65-year-old Hajira read a few aayats of the Quran. On the boat, she held Sarwat, 2, in her lap. Rahat, 8 months, was held by her mother and Tarawat, 5, sat between the two. Among all her belongings Kashifa, 35, only took powder and baby wipes for Rahat. As the volunteer who had reportedly come from Rainawari in downtown Srinagar rowed the boat away, the family including Tarawat and Sarwat waved goodbye to Asif who was seeing them off at the window.

A short distance from the house as the boat took a turn near the Hurriyat office, it capsized.

Sajad Ahmad, an activist stranded at the Hurriyat office was watching the scene, horrified. He broke the second storey window to jump into water and pulled Kashifa and Tarawat, the eldest child, on to a nearby tin shed. Boatman, a youth volunteer, saved himself. But Hajira, Sarwat and Rahat after a fleeting struggle sank without a trace, lost in the opaque 15 feet deluge.

Put back on the boat, Kashifa and Tarawat were taken to a nearby private hospital located on higher ground. Kashifa screamed and banged her head against the wall but nobody could help her.

Sitting unaware in his room Asif was happy that his children were safe. Around noon another boatman appeared at his window offering to rescue him. He was taken to the hospital where he began looking for his family. After some frantic searching he found Kashifa, distraught with grief. He collapsed on hearing the news. But in the swirling chaos around the place, he could do nothing.

Shocked into a stony silence, the couple later in the evening begged a patient to part with one of his four bananas so that their only remaining daughter could satisfy her hunger. The day after, Altaf, an employee at the modern hospital brought a potato chips packet for the girl. The family stayed at the hospital for three days and then walked 10 km on foot to Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, the valley’s only tertiary care hospital, north of Srinagar. From there they went to Kashifa’s parental home in Shopian.

For 17 days, thereafter, Asif’s brother in- law Huzaif Nazir frantically searched for his two nieces and their grandmother in the flood waters. Every morning Nazir, along with his companion Junaid Sabir took a load carrier from Dalgate to the private hospital. From there they would board a boat, hired for 1,500 a day, to ferry them around the submerged houses and lanes. They would wade into water to feel with their feet but found nothing. They would leave early in the morning and return late into the evening, searching every home and the corner of the street where the boat capsized. On 21 September, they hit upon one: Hajira Begum, 15 yards away from where she had drowned. And on 24 September, his nieces: Sarwat and Rahat, from under the shed from where their mother and the eldest sister had been pulled to safety.

kidsNazir breaks down as he narrates the story of his search. “We couldn’t go home where the shocked parents of children wouldn’t speak a word. We couldn’t sleep. We couldn’t eat,” says Nazir. “This feeling that our children were under water along with their grandmother was unbearable. But then retrieving their bodies and burying them has hardly made a difference.”

A year on, Asif is back with his family in Rajbagh. He has sought refuge in religion, explaining that the accident was God’s choice. “All of us have to die one day,” says Asif. “God wanted my two angels early.”

Nevertheless, he says, he is afraid of being alone and breaks down when nobody is around. The family has preserved the clothes of their dead daughters. Soon after the deluge, Asif abandoned his old accommodation and shifted to a nearby house.

“My wife insisted we stay around. She believes that the souls of the dead stick around the place of their death,” says Asif. “She wants to be near the spirits of her two daughters.”

Over 300 people were killed and thousands were affected in the September 2014 deluge, the worst to have hit the state in over a century. In Rajbagh, where Asif stayed with his family, the water went up to two storeys. So did it in adjacent Jawahar Nagar, Gogjibagh and Barzulla reducing them to ghost colonies. Around seventy percent of Srinagar was submerged including its commercial hubs, Residency Road, Lal Chowk, Hari Singh High Street and Batamaloo.

According to the official data, J&K floods impacted 12.5 lakh families, damaged 3.50 lakh structures, most of them residential houses including 83,000 pucca houses and 21,162 kutcha houses and partially damaged 1.5 lakh houses. There were similarly massive losses in agriculture, horticulture and tourism.

The state government pegged the loss at 1 lakh crore and sought a package of 44,000 crore from the Centre to kickstart the reconstruction and rehabilitation work in the state. But on the first anniversary of the flood, the state is still awaiting the package from the Centre. So far, the central government has extended 5,039 crore of which just 300 crore has been given to affected families.

On the first anniversary of the floods (7 September), when Jhelum breached its embankments and overflowed into Srinagar, the Valley observed a complete shutdown to protest against the “withholding of the package”. The hartal was supported by the traders, separatists and even the mainstream political party, National Conference. The government arrested the trade leaders and placed separatists under house arrest.

The widespread devastation whose fallout is still unfolding also helps Asif and his wife come to grips with their sorrow. “Thousands have suffered and many other have lost their loved ones. We think we are a part of this larger tragedy,” says Asif. “This gives me some strength to deal with my own grief.”

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