Amid Fire Fury, Rebuilding Becomes Herculean Task in Kashmir

Gata Colony gutted in midnight blaze

After losing everything in fire incidents, the victim families land in an endless cycle of tragedy and misfortune in Kashmir.

By Nida Mehraj

EVERY time a siren shatters the nocturnal silence, Jamsheeda tosses and turns in her bed. She was thrown out of sleep by the same sound last spring and rendered roofless. The tragic tune triggered by burning houses makes her now wonder about the ill-fated families losing their lifetime of means and memories in a jiffy.

“These frequent fire incidents remind me of my own misfortune,” the woeful homemaker says. “They remind me of a life filled with loss and agony.”

As the valley is witnessing frequent fire incidents at the moment, the victims are talking about the raging disaster. One such tragedy reflects from the lanes of Gata colony in Srinagar’s Noorbagh area.

Following the midnight blaze that damaged 22 houses in March 2022, the families lost everything that they had bought, saved, decorated, amassed in their lives. “At about 1:45 at night,” recalls Bilal Sheikh, an inmate of the colony, “my wife’s screams woke all of us. From the window, I saw flames erupting. At that moment, I only tried to save my family.”

Apart from clothes, beddings and utensils, these families lost important documents and certificates of their children. “I had also bought some wedding gold and items for my two daughters,” Bilal says. “The calamity consumed everything.”

The inferno-type fire was sparked by a short circuit in Sheeraza Akhtar’s house. By the time her family woke up, their two rooms had already become furnace. “We weren’t able to save anything,” says Sheeraza. “We’re lucky to be alive.”

Following the dreadful blaze, most of the survivors couldn’t manage living. Almost all of them are dailywagers in municipality on a monthly salary of Rs. 6,500. “My father had to avail a loan from his pension to support our family,” Bilal says. “We’re now finding it hard to repay that. My mother who has had 19 operations in past lost her oxygen machines in the fire. They’re very expensive. I’m not able to afford the life support for her.”

The tragedy has even affected the colony’s mental health as most of the inmates are now availing treatment and therapy for depression, trauma and anger issues. “The tragedy has made me frustrated,” Bilal continues to voice his anguish. “My pleas for help went unnoticed. Barring Rs 50,000 from neighbors and 1 lakh from government, I wasn’t able to get any help. My paltry salary is not even enough to run home and repay our loan. Due to inflation, a rice bag now costs Rs. 1000. I’ve no idea what to do now.”

The same trauma is troubling Fatima Bilal. Before the incident, this 17-year-old girl would teach some 40 kids of her locality. But after losing her home, she’s now facing space constraints. “There’re just two rooms now and my family stays in them,” Fatima says. “I don’t find any calm place at my house to teach these kids.”

For the family of Mehvish, an 11-year-old handicapped girl living in the colony, the going is even getting tougher. They had bought a motorcycle to take this specially-abled girl to doctor every week. But the fire rendered it a mere scalded scrap. The family stayed at a marriage hall with no basic facilities for three months after the tragedy. They had no money for the medical treatment of their daughter. It worsened her condition. “She began screaming aloud for no reason,” Mehvish’s mother recalls. “Everyone used to get intimidated by that. Unavailability of medicines undid her entire treatment.”

Even schoolchildren were deeply affected by the incident. Sheeraza recounts how her seven-year-old son, Sabran, lost his books, uniform, clothes and toys in the fire incident. “He was unable to go to school for three months after the incident,” the woebegone mother says. “His school eventually gave him bag and books, but closed gates for him due to his casual dressing. We couldn’t afford his uniform for which he was bullied by his schoolmates. Back home, his relentless queries on our new home would leave all of us heartbroken. He used to sit in a corner in the marriage hall and not talk to anyone.”

Some of these victims even lost their loved ones in the tragedy. Shakeela, a homemaker, recalls how her teen daughter, Asmat Bashir, died after coming under her burnt home’s collapsed wall. “She was my youngest child and only daughter,” the mother laments. “I don’t worry about anything that happened to our house due to fire, but my daughter’s death has left me shattered. I wish it would’ve happened to me more than her.”

The pain has indeed become personal for the fire victims of Kashmir, and so has the struggle for rebuilding. “We didn’t even have a scarf on our heads when the fire erupted,” Jamsheeda, the homemaker, says. “And now, the same thing is sadly happening to many others as these midnight flames are getting out of control in Kashmir.”

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