By Joshua Crasto
A knock on the door at 10.30 pm wakes us up. It’s our mechanic and he reveals: “All is gone… taken, swept away.” We’ve barely rested from our ordeal in the last 36 hours, when we somehow made it back to the safety of our hotel room, before we’re out back again to assess what has happened.
The first sign of the situation being a grim one is that all of Leh’s usually busy stores are shut. Streets are deserted with the lone vehicle speeding down, horns blaring and overflowing with locals waving to us to get out of the way. We make our way through the narrow streets across the local part of town.
It’s the part of Leh where the local Ladakhi and Tibetans, along with the influx of innumerable Kashmiri shopkeepers and road workers from Bihar, call home.
The place is deserted, houses have crumbled and people have fled, to where, we’re still trying to find out. We make our way across town where boulders, stones, rubble are strewn on the road. We decide to follow the masses as they make their way downhill. Perched at various vantage points are hundreds, if not thousands, of locals and tourists alike watching what looks like the sets of a disaster flick.
Hoping for hope
The road that leads down from the market all the way to Leh’s main circle lies ravaged. Rescue workers have already been at it for a few hours, three land excavators from the GREF were already pressed into service and are running on hope. The count has been nine so far, none of them survivors. Rubble lines (a line of people passing debris) have been set up with people using recovered utensils, blankets and buckets to move the rubble.
Nihal, our mechanic, gets in line, as Anand and I get to work with a shovel and a pick-axe. Tourists and locals stand knee-deep in the rubble and sand to help clear mud blocks, sand and poplar from an area that was, only a few hours ago, home to a family. A mangled car is pulled out, an engine lies by the side of the road with a framed photograph of an army man on it. Somebody’s father, somebody’s son — whereabouts unknown.
The bright sun is taking its toll as volunteers are hard pressed to find signs of life buried under the rubble. There’s nobody in charge of rescue operations as they go forward in a haphazard way. The Army’s taken a hit, too, and it won’t be before they re-group that help will come to civilians. There’s suddenly a hush in the crowd. We summon torches and call for silence.
We’ve just unearthed a sleeping bag, some mats and a mug. Surely evidence of somebody’s bed side. We’ve got our ears to the earth and are listening intently for signs of life. A deep moan and a high-pitched whine, and it’s repetitive. The narrow crevices hardly let the torch lights through. Hellos in different languages make their way through, but it’s the same sounds coming back. It’s the sounds of the excavator working a couple of hundred yards away that’s coming through the earth. Once the engine goes out, the moans fade away, and so does the hope of finding anyone alive.
We decide to move on. Find someplace else that we can be of help. As we walk a few hundred metres to the bus stand, houses are buried to the first floor, shutter gates wrapped around pillars and toys and cars are equally mangled in heaps. We chat up a Himachal Tourism driver who’s got his head peeking out of the window. He finally puts some perspective to what has happened here.
“It was exactly 10 minutes past midnight when a stream of water started flowing down the main road and into the bus stand. Soon, the water level rose and with it came cars, homes and human bodies. The buses started floating around. I wasn’t even close to this place when I first parked. And then, by 1 am, came the sludge and covered it all. There are countless people under this mud that everyone is standing on.”
The fury of the water shoved his bus against an electric pole that saved him and the bus from hurtling down the bottom of the hill. The cement-like sludge, two feet deep now, keeps the bus firmly planted into the ground.
Leh is a town that’s built on the slopes of the mountains. From behind the town, a road snakes up to the top of the world — Khardung-La, the world’s highest motorable road. Down below lies Choklamsar and Shey on the fertile plains of the Indus. Leh is only the tip of what appears to be a flash flood or the by-product of what they call a Solar Tsunami.
Help needed, big time
Choklamsar, home to a few Army battalions, has also been washed away along with scores of lives, and property. It’s hard to assess the losses with phone lines and electricity down. Locals estimate the count to be in the thousands. From what we hear, officials have put it at 38. As the dark clouds loom over, threatening to flood the town, panic has set in and the streets have emptied as every available vehicle has been left by occupants making for higher ground. The cars are lined up on the mountain road to the Leh palace that towers over the town.
A few courageous souls have chosen to stay back and dig, look for survivors and brave the elements with a typical Ladakhi smile on their faces. It’s fate they say, and the mountain always wins.
If you’re in Leh and are reading this, don’t be the uppity white tourist sitting in the confines of your hotel, drinking tea with your pinky up, oblivious to the world outside. Discussing how your country is efficient in clearing a mess like this. Or be the pseudo junkie who’s left your big Indian city for a ten-day fix with a camera slung on your shoulder, discussing where to get your next shot.
People are homeless and supplies are getting scarce. This is an unprecedented weather phenomenon, a natural disaster of sorts and the place and people you take so much out of each year needs your help. Get out there, get on to the streets, put a smile on your face and get to work. The Army and locals need able bodies to get this town running again.
(The writer is a former journalist. He was present in Leh as the tragedy unfolded)
Source: Business Standard