It was 7.30 a.m. The Army contingent was ready at Manul hamlet, just 7 km from Mangan, district headquarters of the North Sikkim district in Sikkim. The contingent was to march forward to reach the remotest of villages in the district to rescue the earthquake victims.
Heavy landslides caused by last Sunday's massive earthquake have disconnected those villages. Very few residents of the villages endured the arduous trek to Manul as they had faced devastation and distress back home.
Some of them were workers of the Teesta Urja project and they appeared to be traumatised by the experience. According to them, the situation at the project tunnel could be serious: “We do not know how many workers have been trapped inside.”
Kamal and Romu, residents of Rammam village, braved the forest path and climbed up to Manul with their one-year-old baby.
The Army unit started from Manul to reach Rammam. I accompanied the team along the tough hilly terrain to witness the rescue operations in the remotest areas. The team had to go 1,500 ft. downhill from Manul to reach the Teesta river. Then it had to climb up around 1,500 ft. through dense forests after crossing the river.
The team was taking down every detail of the route from the local residents. A helicopter was hovering above – with Army personnel trying their best to rescue people from the villages of Chungthang, Shipgyre and Saffo. Given the extent of damage and its remoteness, the village of Rammam, however, remained out of bounds even to the helicopter.
The Army personnel came by a family who were climbing up with great difficulty with as few belongings as they could carry. Suman is a contractor working for the Teesta Urja project. Horrified at seeing death from such a close distance, he was at a loss for words to explain his experience and tightly held his baby boy Shreyan to his chest. Suman's wife Sanju's lips had turned pale with shock and exhaustion due to the steep climb to reach Manul in search of a new life.
A faint smile of joy appeared on baby Shreyan's face after receiving chocolates from the Army personnel – perhaps the first time since the tragedy struck.
The vertical downhill path led to a plateau where a group of people were resting. Amrit Thapa, an injured worker of the Teesta Urja project, was being carried to Manul by sherpas by fastening him on to a plastic chair.
The Army team marched forward to cross the turbulent Teesta. I met Dawa Doma, sarpanch of Rammam village, who was on her way to survey the village.
“Rammam has a population of 200 people whereas Saffu and Shipgyre have bigger populations of 400 people. Nature is cruel sometimes and none can go against her. We are trying hard to support the villagers. Teams of the armed forces and the National Disaster Response Force have reached the village and we hope the situation to improve soon,” she said.
North Sikkim is a place where the heaven touches the earth, the ambience creates a mystery, silence can be heard, vision tends to travel beyond the horizon, soul starts meditating unknowingly and the mind gets rejuvenated.
But all these things are absurd now. The fragile Himalayan terrain, which can put our minds at peace, is also capable of stealing the peace through sheer geographical change.
(The writer is a Special Photographer of Business Line)