On September 5, when three days of torrential rain had waterlogged some parts of Srinagar, Qurat and five young boys travelled to Tengpora locality. She recalls meeting a stubborn, old lady who wouldn’t agree to leave her home, probably afraid of thieves who were rumoured to have broken into abandoned, flood-hit homes and decamped with valuables. On the second day when floodwaters had risen more, the lady was pleading to be rescued.
“It was then that we rescued her,” Qurat says.
For next couple of days during which time Srinagar was turned into a large lake, Qurat became part of the locally driven rescue and relief work in Bemina, Nowgam and other inundated localities of the summer capital. “We waded through waist-high waters and sometimes used boats to evacuate people from their flooded houses,” she says, “it was horrendous to see people left on their own with no government in sight.”
Qurat’s team not only rescued stranded people and shifted them to safer places, but they also provided them with food and clothing. “We rescued some 150 people from Tengpora and sheltered them at a school. With God’s grace, I was not short of money. And my friends and family ably assisted me,” she says.
When the machinery of the state government in Indian administered Kashmir drowned in the deluge, Qurat’s desire to lend a hand to people in need epitomizes the work of hundreds of young people who risked their lives for saving others. According to a study conducted by an independent Kashmiri volunteers group, 96 percent of the rescue and relief work was carried out by local volunteers. Among these were young women of Kashmir who dived into waters sometimes even against their parents’ wishes. Sadly, these brave women didn’t get a mention in the narratives of voluntary rescue ops reported in the local press.
But, by September 8 as Jehlum sank Srinagar with all road and telecom connectivity lost, Qurat was unable to carry out rescue operations on her own. Determined to carry out the rescue work, she joined a voluntary group in Sanat Nagar locality. Their work was cut for the day; the team would meet each morning and divide work amongst themselves. “Each day we chose who would do what and went on our own to different parts of Srinagar,” she says.
The flood had submerged most localities of Srinagar but it miraculously spared the residents who moved from ground floors of their homes to first, then second and even third floor as water level rose dangerously. In many cases, trapped residents refused to abandon their homes. “It was a hard task convincing them to leave. They feared that their homes will be robbed. It was horrifying. On one hand, the waters were rising, but these people wouldn’t leave. At last, they agreed to move because they realized their lives were in danger,” she says.
What annoyed Qurat during the rescue ops was the attitude of men towards her efforts. But it didn’t stop her from performing her role as a saviour. “At some places, men would just look on as spectators while I waded through floodwaters to reach out to stranded families. I could see that they were questioning the presence of a woman in the midst of situation which is usually seen as man’s domain. But I didn’t care what people thought. I just went on doing my job,” she says.
At her home, Qurat faced a difficult situation too, of dealing with her parents about her rescue work. “I belong to a conservative family and it was difficult to convince them.” she says, “initially they were a little reluctant but I was determined to change them and finally I won them over.”
When floodwaters entered Jawahar Nagar, one of the worst-hit localities in Srinagar, Bisma Ali’s family was stuck in the locality and they made a distress call to her. “My two sisters were in the house. My younger sister told me in a grave tone that water had reached the ceiling of ground floor. I decided right then that I had to be at home,” says Bisma.
In the next couple of days, Bisma managed to raise INR 25,000 with the help of her three Kashmiri friends, “We raised the money from our journalism department at Jamia Milia Islamia. Everyone contributed,” she says, “on September 9 and 10, every Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri came to help in whatever way they could.”
With money in hand, Bisma rushed to buy life-jackets and medicines, the lack of which was severely felt back home. But on September 10 when they arrived in Srinagar, Bisma and her friends felt there was a need to coordinate and organize the relief operation, so they divided themselves into two groups; one in New Delhi would collect relief and get it airlifted to Kashmir, the other would collect it from Srinagar airport.
“It was incredible to see so much of water. I felt panicky, but I held my nerve,” she says.
It was the relief camp set up at Hyderpora, one of the largest in Srinagar, where Bisma and her friends set up their base. What followed from September 10 onwards was something she will never forget. “Water was everywhere. It looked as if every concrete thing had vanished. In the coming days, we waded through chest-deep waters to reach out to stranded families. Our priority was to reach as many families as we could.”
On a tip off that there was a pregnant lady stranded in Rajbagh, Bisma jumped fetched an inflatable boat and set about finding her in the locality. But what she encountered in the way left her scared and almost helpless. A bloated corpse of a woman clutching a photo frame was floating in water near her Jawahar Nagar home.
“The photo was of her three young children. I was terrified. It was the most dreadful thing I have ever seen. When I tried to drag her out of water, her skin was giving away. Haunting is a small word to describe it. We found a man’s body a few steps ahead, who was probably her husband. They were a Sikh family,” says Bisma.
Bisma mustered courage and rowed on. On the second storey of a house in Rajbagh, she found the pregnant lady. “She was four months pregnant. She had gone without food and water for three days. Her employer, a certain professor at University of Kashmir, had abandoned her and her family of four to guard the house. I pleaded with her to move out with us, but she didn’t listen,” says Bisma, “I gave her stock of food and medicine for two days. And from then on, I would come every other day to give her required essentials.”
For the next fifteen days, battling fever and skin infection caused by floodwaters, Bisma kept on rescuing and shipping relief material to hundreds of families stranded in their homes. “I didn’t see a single government official during this period of time. They had all vanished. But what really moved me was the way Kashmiris conducted themselves. Everyone was a volunteer with one authorizing over us,” she says.
According to Kashmir Volunteers for Disaster and Flood Relief, the group Bisma worked with, they were able to reach over 47000 people in different flood-hit areas of Srinagar. “Kashmir was flooded and it needed help. We just played our part,” says Bisma.
When Lal Ded hospital, Kashmir’s lone maternity centre, came under flood waters by the evening of September 7, many women patients in the centre had to face problems. There were expectant mothers and new-borns in the hospital who needed immediate attention. The women volunteers not only rescued them but also provided them medical assistance.
“We were looking for women who required medical help and wherever we faced a problem with a lady patient, I would call my gynaecologist mother who instructed me about what needed to be done at that time,” says Mahum Shabir, another young volunteer who had graduated from Harvard University, says.
Inshah Malik, a Kashmiri student of political science in Delhi, believes the flood has changed the perception towards women and their role in the society. “What we saw in the valley is that women are equally capable in rescuing and saving people’s lives. This is highly encouraging. The courage the women volunteers of Kashmir have shown is extraordinary. Other women in Kashmir should take a cue from this and learn that they have the agency to help and inspire people,” she says.
Looking back, Bisma says, the experience of floods has made her stronger and a new belief has taken root in her. “It is the belief that Kashmiris are very resilient. We can face any calamity with smiles.”
Originally published here — https://www.authintmail.com/2014/feature/braving-deluge-women-who-risked-their-lives-others-121132
OCTOBER 23, 2014