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On a mission to save lives

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A.H. Naqvi
A.H. Naqvi

S. Anandan

Kochi: His ilk was lauded as ‘men of honour’ by a Hollywood movie by that title. And that wasn’t for nothing. When deep sea diver Lieutenant Commander A.H. Naqvi and his team of naval divers embarked on the AN 32s from Kochi to carry out rescue and evacuation operations in badly inundated Bihar last month, what drove them was a deep sense of sacrifice and dedication to humanity.

“Two navy teams comprising 41 divers and two officers from the Southern Naval Command landed at Purnia in Bihar at three in the evening on August 31,” says Commander Naqvi. “The objective was to evacuate the people stuck in villages—on roofs and treetops to the rescue shelters set up by the local government. On landing, we were told to go to Banmanki town, closest to the flood-affected area. We were supposed to meet the naval team, about 40 in all, that had come a day before from the Eastern Naval Command. It was like a battle zone with us moving from one place to another, around us lay vast expanse of water.”

“At Banmanki, we got to know that they were operating further ahead in a place called Chandpur Banga, the last place you could reach by road.

But the last 200 metres approach road, which had fields on either side, had waist-deep water. We reached there in two trucks and a Tata pick-up van only to realise that the team had gone back to Banmanki leaving their boats behind. Finally, when our local guide took us to the school where we were given shelter by a BSF team for the night, it was past one in the morning. We had our first meal of the day there,” says Commander Naqvi.

“At three in the morning, a local official arrived and said we had been allotted a primary school in Dheema village, just a kilometre short of Banmanki. We reached there after six and were ready with our Jeminis—inflatable rubber rafts with on-board engine—for the operations by 11 a.m.” Both teams put together, there were 30 naval boats, life jackets, diving sets and 80 men, including those trained in first aid. Side by side, teams from the Army, CISF, National Disaster Relief Force under the BSF and ITBP were launching their boats.

Commander Naqvi’s team rescued about 800 people on the first day.

“There was a large number of women (even pregnant women) children, aged people and patients who got stranded in the deluge. We initially took guides and sought the help of maps to venture out and at times, even our guides lost the way. Initially, the communication towers had gone deaf and even the walkie-talkies wouldn’t work. We had to rely on our sense of navigation. But as days went by we were settled and things became better,” says Commander Naqvi.

The saddest part, however, was to listen to the pleas of people. “They wanted us to go to their village and save their folks. Emotions were high. But we first took women and children and a male member of the family and did about 50 sorties a day. The raft that was made to carry eight had about 25 people on board to safety.” The team under Commander Naqvi lived mostly on fruits, and as he puts it, “a deep sense of satisfaction would override our hunger and other discomforts”.

The team had reason to feel satisfied. A pregnant woman went into labour and had a baby while on way to a rescue shelter. “In another case, when our diver reached an old lady, who was frozen and without clothes, she said: ‘I am already dead. Why are you helping me?’ She had been marooned by her family when the water was rising,” says an emotional Naqvi.

He had been to Sri Lanka soon after the Tsunami to participate in the rescue operations, but this he says was different and emotionally exhausting.

“Tsunami had only come to about 100 metres from the sea shore. The situation in Bihar made it tough to even reach people,” he says.

The team had been inoculated for malaria and typhoid prior to departure and the operation lasted for 12 days when Commander Naqvi’s ‘men of honour’ saved about 6,000 lives.

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