I have returned from the hell that Srinagar and much of the Kashmir Valley is today. I have returned with my parents only because of the Indian Army and the kindness of strangers. Everything else has collapsed in most of Srinagar.
I went to Srinagar on Saturday alarmed by reports of floods in the Kashmir Valley to reassure my parents who lived there, but not very concerned about their safety. Four generations of Mattoos had lived in our family home, in one of the most pleasant neighbourhoods of Srinagar: Gogji Bagh. My grandfather liked to tell his grandchildren that they should ensure that their spine was as strong as the foundations of our house! It had survived every vicissitude in the ups and downs of the Mattoo family and Kashmir: earthquakes, militancy (a bullet in my great grandfather’s portrait is a reminder of the violent 1990s), deaths and personal grief.
On Saturday evening, there was the first ominous sign: there was a power outage. We slept, however, comforted by the prediction of the local meteorology chief, Sonam Lotus, who has become a popular icon for the accuracy of his forecasts, that Sunday would be sunny. And indeed I woke to a radiant blue sky with not a cloud in sight. But the power outage had continued through the night, and I got a frightened phone call from a neighbour at about 9.30 a.m. that the bund on the bank of the Jhelum (near Lal Ded hospital, about a kilometre from our house) had been breached!
Within minutes the water was streaming ferociously into our garden. I calculated we had about an hour before our ground floor was submerged; actually we had just about 30 minutes.
In that frenzy, we could only really clear the kitchen: food and water to feed a staff of 12 — and moved to the upper storeys. The water had risen one- and-a-half storeys by the afternoon and we stayed up that night maintaining a vigil, not entirely sure what we would do if the water rose to the upper floors: we had no power, no phones (mobile or landline), no contact with anyone, and just a couple of messages that we were not sure had been delivered. The night echoed with cries of ‘bachao bachao’ from the nearby Gujjar and Bakerwal hostel in Amar Singh college and other places!
On Monday morning, we were finally rescued by the brave jawans of the Indian Army in a paddle boat and taken to a safer point at the bund – with just one small bag each.
There was no sign of relief or help.
The only option was to rush to the airport. We did so with the kindness of good Samaritans, and after walking kilometres in waist-deep water. Many who helped had never met us, some were friends from Facebook, including Ashraf Bhat – a distinguished lawyer, who walked with us and dropped us near the airport, young Suhail who helped us find a short cut and helped my parents traverse the wall that led us to a dryer route. And Dr. Khan and Sherwani Sahib for finally dropping us to the airport!
We are back in Delhi’s safety, but deeply concerned about those in the valley who are still marooned. Today, Prime Minister, rescue Kashmir, and Kashmiris will respect you forever!
(Professor Amitabh Mattoo is Director of the Australia-India Institute at the University of Melbourne)