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There are only graves here

By Shujaat Bukhari

WALTENGU (SOUTH KASHMIR), FEB. 23. Until now, the few survivors in this remote belt of South Kashmir were busy counting the bodies of those killed in last weekend's avalanches. Today, huge snow cutters managed to clear the long road from Qazigund and the emerging picture is stunning.

Waltengu Naar, as it is called, is a vast area dominated by the Gujjars. These hardy mountain folk were caught unawares by the heavy snowfall. "We have lost everything. We do not know who has survived and who is under the snow," cried Muhammad Hussain, a resident. He has been fighting a grim battle for the last three days using a spade and shovel. Hundreds of locals walked for many hours from nearby villages to help in the rescue work. They say they have buried 151 people so far; the fate of at least 50 people is still not known.

"How can we bury them when there is so much of snow? There is no other option but to have mass graves," says Mohammad Ramzan, a local Revenue Department official. Hutments that once housed poor shepherds have turned into mass graves.

Few to mourn the dead

"We can't have the purifying bath of dead bodies which is mandatory in our religion," say locals.

Frozen corpses are being taken out from the local mosque one by one, draped in white shrouds and lowered into huge graves after brief prayers. The tragedy is that there are no tears because there are few to mourn the dead. Entire families have been wiped out. Most of the few survivors are badly injured and being treated by employees of the Health Department, the only visible government agency in the area besides 50 or so police and Army personnel.

The road from Qazigund has been cleared but the trek to the place of the real damage still takes more than an hour. Master Bashir Ahmad, a resident who owned two houses, narrates how he lost 22 of his relatives as watches the remains of his houses being levelled. "It was not an avalanche but a fierce snow storm that came with the speed of a rocket and the noise of a train and blew up whatever came its way." His son was rescued only to die later in hospital allegedly for want of medicines. His wife Hajra, was rescued after three days under the snow.

Notwithstanding the presence of 22 policemen led by an Assistant Sub-Inspector and 35 Rashtriya Rifles men, the battle is literally being fought alone by the villagers. Subedar Gumukh Singh aka Gulab said: "A chopper had landed some stuff near the village, but I did not permit its distribution because it was too little and the requirement was too much."

Priorities

According to villagers, the need is to prioritise the requirements. The authorities sent rice, blankets, medicines, utensils and flour in vehicles that literally jammed the yet-to-be-fully operational 15-km road from Qazigund. But what those involved in the digging and relief operations need are spades and shovels, water to quench the thirst and some refreshments, say locals. "We have become the fodder for the government propaganda," said Mohammad Jamal, "No doubt the policemen and soldiers are here. But if they say the security men are busy in the operations they are insulting the thousands of men who pour in daily from far away villages to dig and get the bodies out. We do not know them but we respect them."

"Nobody is providing us the shovels and other necessary implements. We are barely able to open and clear four hutments a day," said Irshad Ahmed from a neighbouring village. "With this process it will take more than six months to clear the area." People from surrounding villages rescued more than 150 villagers on Sunday; five of them died after many hours allegedly for want of treatment.

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