Scourging floods spawn tales of youth valor

GK Photo of 2014 floods

Soibugh brave-hearts save 42 orphans, 12 staff members from Jawahar Nagar

Muhammad Aaqib (20) was patiently listening to his father’s faint memories of the last major flood Kashmir faced decades ago when a friend knocked on the door of his house in Soibugh area of central Kashmir’s Budgam district on Sunday, September 7. On his way to the village square at around 10:30 am where a lorry was waiting with its engine on, Aaqib was told he was needed on a daredevil rescue operation in Srinagar’s posh Jawahar Nagar area.

By the time the lorry sped off from Soibugh – 20 miles from Jawahar Nagar – 42 orphan kids, alongwith 12 staff members, had taken refuge on the roof of Bait-ul-Hilal orphanage.  Roaring flood waters from Jhelum, that swept the state’s summer capital, had submerged the two floors of the three-storey orphanage in less than two hours with no help in sight.

“I have never been so panic-stricken in my life. It was unbelievable. At around 8:30 am, I was watching the sewage lines around the building complex bursting,” says Rayees Ahmad, a staff member. “All the images of tsunami we saw on the TV years before were unfolding before my eyes. Within a span of less than eight minutes, the ground floor of the building housing the orphanage was flooded.”

“From the roof I could see washing machines, refrigerators and gas cylinders of our neighbors floating in the premises of our building. People were crying for help. The kids were screaming out of fear. It felt like the Doom’s Day,” Ahmad recollects.

Luckily, Ahmad says, they managed to make few phone calls to their office bearers in Soibugh area who promised help. For more than two hours, however, Ahmad saw no signs of assistance from anywhere. “We didn’t lose hope but fears of the worst were now becoming more evident,” he says.

Phone connectivity was now poor and there was no contact with the rescue team, which had by now hit the first bottleneck: they were stuck in Boatman Colony area of Bemina where some locals forcibly tried to snatch one of their boats.

“A scuffle ensued as the people at the Boatman Colony tried to snatch one of the three boats we had with us. Some among us even sustained injuries,” says Tanveer Ahmad Malik, who was part of the rescue team. “Their houses were also flooded and they desperately needed a boat so it was understood that they attacked us. Ultimately, we decided to part with one boat.”

Malik got the shock of his life when he reached Jawahar Nagar Bund. “We knew the situation would be bad but we had never imagined that we would witness a mountain of water,” says Malik. “It was terrifying, to say the least.”

It did scare the members of the rescue team but it didn’t affect their morale, asserts Aaqib. However, the team had suffered another setback which they came to know about when they disembarked the boats from the lorry. “One of the boats had been damaged during the scuffle. We were now left with just one boat,” informs Aaqib.

While weighing their options, Aaqib spotted a sack full of used water bottles floating on the floodwaters and an idea struck his mind that it can be used as a makeshift boat. “I feared for my life when I jumped into the water and clung on to the sack. But within a few minutes I felt that it could be used as a boat to rescue the kids,” says Aaqib.

It took Aaqib almost half an hour to reach the orphanage that was normally a three- minute walk from the bund. He had to battle telephone cables, power lines, carcasses of animals, and cars as he made his way to the orphanage. “Not only this, I saw people crying for help from the top floors of their houses. I even saw some houses crumbling before my eyes,” he says.

However, Aaqib says that his eureka moment came when he reached the kids who were waiting for help. “I couldn’t stop my tears when I saw the kids. I took around fifteen sorties from my makeshift boat and in every turn I would rescue around five or six kids.”

Ahmad, who is since working at a relief camp organized by Yateem Foundation at the Bund says that he owes his life to Aaqib and his friends. “There was no Army or the NDRF. When our hopes of surviving the deluge were almost dashed, we saw Aaqib and his friends. They didn’t have life saving jackets on them but we knew they would risk their lives to save ours, something we can’t expect from others,” Ahmad recollected as he battled tears. “Surviving the floods was like a rebirth.”

Back home in Soibugh, tension was running high as rumors were rife that the rescue team was lost in the deluge. Aaqib had left on the risky mission without even informing his parents as they “wouldn’t have allowed him”. “When I heard about orphan kids I just couldn’t think twice. And every second counted that time so I left without asking for permission from my parents,” says Aaqib. “I knew swimming and martial arts so I thought this would come handy. And I would save my life somehow.”

After shifting the kids and the staff to safety, Aaqib rescued several families, including some non-local labourers. “For the next several days I continued the rescue operation in various areas of the deluged city,” he says. “This is the time we helped our brethren. Otherwise, our lives mean nothing.”

Both Aaqib and Tanveer along with others couldn’t sleep for the several nights after the rescue operation, but the feeling that orphan kids are safe is what makes them feel satisfied.