Uttarakhand floods: Reporting a tragedy
There are two questions I have been asked often, after my return from a reporting assignment on the flash floods in Uttarakhand.
"How bad was the scale of destruction?"
"As a journalist did you not interfere with the rescue operations?"
People have asked this with a mix of curiosity, shock at the devastating tragedy and also sometimes with contempt towards the visual media.
18th June 2013, 11:30 am, Delhi
Arpit, my cameraperson and I left Delhi for Uttarakhand unclear about the magnitude of devastation. As we drove through Rishikesh towards the foothills of the Himalayas, the tragedy slowly unfolded itself. Massive destruction caused by the flash floods to lives and livelihoods was of a scale very few people had witnessed before. As we travelled I felt that it was almost at one brutal stroke, almost everything in the path of the river had been erased, wiped away. The tragedy was beyond our worst imagination.
For 3 days we drove through roads, broken and often washed away. Often we proceeded for a bit and halted again for hours because of landslides.
And then drove again through towns and villages wiped out by the raging Mandakini river. Overnight they had been turned into ghost towns.
We wanted to reach out to the stranded pilgrims, report on their condition, focus on the relief work and also look at what many were ignoring, the story of the villagers and how they could make an attempt to restart their lives. It was essential for us to report these stories with sensitivity and at the same time with an urgency to ensure there was immediate help. It had to be a collaborative effort towards helping those who were affected by this tragedy. It was not an easy task and we knew it wouldn't be. Our team of reporters were spread in different locations.
I reached Guptkashi on 21st June.
The main square of Guptkashi had transformed into a makeshift relief camp with local traders tirelessly distributing free food and handing out medicines to the starving and ailing pilgrims who had been evacuated from the upper reaches of Kedarnath and of Gaurikund.
While we were at Guptkashi, news had come in about the rescue operations in Kedarnath. Apparently they were winding up. But thousands of pilgrims were still stranded between Rambada and Gaurikund. I needed to travel up to Gaurikund to meet those people, to bring forth their voices, their stories of survival and how with the help of the rescue teams they still continued to fight against all odds. But all roads leading to Gaurikund from Guptkashi had been washed away. The only way we could get there was the aerial route.
21st June, 5:30 pm, Chardham Helipad, Guptkashi
From the MI17 to the Chetaah to the ALH, a chopper was landing every two minutes at this helipad. The pilots were braving the rough weather and bringing in scores of injured, critical and frail pilgrims. The manner in which every single member of the rescue units was functioning, it displayed clockwork precision and a much needed urgency. The IAF pilots would land their helicopter for just a few minutes at the helipad before flying out into the mist and beyond the dark clouds to get more people. The aim was to evacuate as many as possible and as quickly. With every landing, NDRF and medical teams rushed the survivors, at times physically carrying the injured ones to the medical camp tents. I also noticed many people who ran aimlessly clutching on to photographs of their loved ones, showing them to as many survivors as possible. They also showed it to the rescue personnel, begging them to have a look and see if they could recall having seen their relatives somewhere. A few photographs were handed over to me by those looking for their loved ones requesting me to look for them if I reached Gaurikund. I wanted to get there but never at the cost of rescue operations and evacuations. The choppers that flew from Guptkashi to Gaurikund were usually empty and they carried pilgrims on the way back. So when Wing Commander Jitendra Umrao flying an ALH agreed to fly us one way--till Gaurikund, Arpit and I got in knowing that the possibility of an immediate return would be very difficult.
21st June, 6pm, Gaurikund
As the pilots manoeuvred the ALH through the narrow space between the mountains, the extent of the devastation caused by the deluge became clearer. The flash floods had almost ripped apart entire mountains, scattered boulders and debris over inhabited areas. It had knocked off houses like a pack of cards and had reduced entire villages into rubble.
As our helicopter descended, stirring up dust clouds from the ground, I could see- old and young, frail and hungry - men, women and children pushing through the maze of security, trying to reach the chopper, crying out to be taken first. Some being pushed aside, for their own safety by men in uniform, to avoid the rotors, others scrambling in, squatting and clinging onto any available inch of space inside the ALH.
As the chopper flew away and the blinding dust settled down, the helplessness of all those desperate to go back became clearer. Every individual waiting to go back in a chopper had a story of pain and loss. Almost every face had tears and trauma was written large on them. But somehow in all of this there was also a glimmer of hope. Hope about not just going back alone but also hope to find their loved ones possibly stranded somewhere, still breathing and hoping that they'd be rescued and united with their family.
We stood there with our cameras. Near and around us were least 300 people stranded for days on this mountain top. Many had lost everything to the raging river, never as turbulent as it was now. As we stood there, we were thinking how could one possibly even capture a bit of what was going through the minds of the people here, how could one put a mike forward and ask them to speak. We knew it would be impossible to get every detail the enormity of the tragedy was such. Just then an elderly lady walked up to us and said she wanted to speak to the camera. She had crossed Rambada and was on her way to Gaurikund when the cloudburst occurred on the 17th morning. Fighting the heavy downpour as it lashed the mountains, treading through the slippery and very difficult terrain she and her two daughters trekked up and huddled together to stay warm and alive till the rains stopped. The next few days they walked to find help. They walked through the devastation and roads that had dead bodies strewn on them. But with no food and no water, exhaustion kicked in and as they trekked through another treacherous climb, her 34-year old daughter lost her foot hold, slipped and fell deep into the endless space below the mountain. With a straight face she tells me how no one cried for her or mourned her death. No one even tried to find her. She says that the thought of her 7-year old grand-daughter in Indore waiting for her mother to return breaks her heart. The lid that had been kept on her days of pain and emotions finally comes off as she burst into tears.
As she spoke the last sortie of that day came in. Another 7-8 people could be evacuated. Who could go and who would have to stay back and spend another long night in these life-threatening conditions? The priority for the rescue team was clear - the sick and ailing followed by the old and frail, women and children and then young men. As the group of people rushed once again towards the landing chopper, an old man in his late 70's sat quietly in the corner.
An ITBP personnel yelled out to him indicating him to come ahead to board the chopper. He shook his head, refusing to go and watched the chopper leave. I went up to him and asked him why he chose not to leave. His reply was calm and direct. The floods had separated him from his wife. After their darshan (offering) at the holy shrine inside the Kedarnath temple on the 16th of June, his wife had taken the paalki (palanquin) and moved ahead. Now he had no idea where she'd gone. After years of togetherness, this pilgrimage was a journey they had planned together and now how could he leave his soul mate behind? He said he'd wait for her till the last rescue team left. As our cameras rolled and I questioned him, he opened up more and at one point started crying. It was immensely sad but we thought it was essential for others to know his story. At the end of the interview, he held my hand and said "I have children your age; I hope they too will understand how I never ever wanted to leave their mother behind".
As the deafening sound of the choppers died down and darkness once again engulfed Gauirkund, people started preparing for the long, cold night ahead. Roaming around with surgical masks (provided by rescue teams) to avoid the nauseating stench of the decomposing bodies, people slept on the helipad in hope of being the first ones to be evacuated the next morning. Some others walked in a single line, down the mountain, to the nearby police chowki. In the darkness, the chowki visible thanks to the rising moon was the makeshift distribution point for food. Pooris and pickle from the relief food packets were being distributed. Our team got one packet. Then with a team of four mountaineers, Avdesh Bhatt and his group, who were there at Gaurikund for voluntary rescue work, we found our way to a rundown lodge along the riverside. We opened the rooms. In complete darkness and silence a few of us settled for the night in a deserted dormitory, waking up at midnight to the sound of rain and thunder and the river flowing just a few metres away. Most of the people at Gaurikund had already suffered the wrath of the river and the fear was evident.
22nd June 2013, 6am, Gaurikund
At day break rescue operations resumed. Mr Jaideep Singh, the commanding officer of the NDRF team at Kedar valley proceeded by foot with a handful of team members towards Jungle Chatti. News had just come in of casualties and stranded pilgrims in that region. Also a massive landslide had blocked any movement out of that area. Meanwhile a new road route, as long as 7 kilometres, out of Gaurikund to Sonprayag, had just been opened up that day. The narrow road was only accessible by foot and the ITBP personals now started motivating and helping the young and fit to walk back and not wait for air evacuation. "Yeh bhi ek yatra hai...bhagwan ka naam lo aur chal do...kab tak yahan ruke raho ge?" (This too is a pilgrimage of sorts...take God's name and get going) shouted a broad built, middle-aged ITBP personal with kind eyes. "Main bhi chalunga aapke saath, aapka haath pakadke nadi cross karunga." (I will come along and help you cross the river). But for the stranded pilgrims, 6 days of exhaustion had led to frustration. In anger a woman who had come all the way from Rajasthan screamed at the ITBP jawan, "Once I get back to my village I'll complaint in my thana about how you made us walk and if I don't get you punished for this, I'll change my name". The ITBP personnel gently asked her to sit down and wait for the chopper instead. The entire atmosphere was emotionally charged and rescue work was certainly not easy. Almost everyone there had witnessed death from close quarters, had suffered loss, and somehow managed to survive.
22nd June 2013, 6 pm, Guptkashi
That evening back at the Guptkashi helipad the last of the rescue choppers were coming in. Most people had been evacuated from Gaurikund. Huddled in a group of people sitting on the ground I spotted the 70-year old man who'd waited for his wife. He had finally left Gaurikund. He spotted me from that distance, raised his hands and looked up to the sky.
(It will probably take many years to even come close to rebuilding lives and villages)