Newsletter Sept-Dec 2005

The massive earthquake that shook the Kashmir Valley on 8 October 2005 was one more devastating experience in the lives of Kashmiris already reeling under almost two decades of conflict. Measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale, the quake, with its epicenter was at Rawalakot (near Muzaffarabad in Pakistan) completely devastated not only Muzaffarabad district in Pakistan but also caused large-scale damage on the Indian side of the LOC. The worst affected areas in the State of Jammu and Kashmir are Karna Tahsil in Kupwara district and Uri.

On both sides of the border, as government and non-government agencies still try to grapple with the damage, the debates rage on: is enough being done? Have victims of the quake also become victims of the Indo-Pak legacy of political conflict? Is this a human crisis or a ‘Muslim’ one… are the survivors of the earthquake also being subjected to communal prejudice? In the last month, the people of the valley have seen it all: Volunteers from the region and beyond national and international borders, trying to help them rebuild their lives. Protests against the state compensation package of Rs 1 lakh only in places like Uri. The women of Chandanwadi protesting against the politicisation of relief distribution. Vested interests ensuring that political supporters get more than their share of relief materials. University students appealing to the Vice Chancellor to postpone their upcoming exams in the wake of the disaster. An encounter with the Srinagar High Court through a PIL filed by an NGO regarding the government’s plan for the relief and rehabilitation for the earthquake hit areas. For the speedy reinstatement of road and telecommunications, for the provision of timber and CGI sheets to build houses. A landmine blast that killed one BSF jawan, and injured 20 other soldiers. And of course, the brutal killing of ten Hindu men in Rajouri, just a couple of days after the quake by a militant group.

Conflict in the region has already ravaged countless lives in the valley. three lakh Hindus displaced from their homes, and left to rebuild their lives in far-away places. The Muslim majority that lives on in the valley is viciously targeted by heavy military presence in the region, strengthened by draconian laws like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. In the face of widespread human rights violations, groups like the Association of Parents for Displaced Persons (APDP) struggle to fight for justice against enforced disappearances. And through it all, the tales of women speak volumes of collateral damage: of thousands of women who are grappling with new realities: Life as ‘half-widows’, destined for pain, sorrow and waiting... without end. Life of fear of violence from both, the state and militant forces alike. Life of economic and social uncertainty. Lives now further devastated by the major earthquake of 8 October.

As the bitter winter sets in, and those trying to help hurry to provide meaningful shelter against the cold for people, grain and livestock, we reproduce here, an account of 17-year old Mimansa Sahay, a friend of Saheli, who was in the valley when disaster struck, as well as excerpts from an appeal by renowned author, Salman Rushdie. At the same time, we extend our sympathy to the suffering people in the valley and our solidarity to their struggle for survival. October, 2005. Kashmir has had a long spell of terror and uncertainty for a number of years. However, we can say these were caused by humans and was, in a strange way, still under our control. When the earthquake struck, however, the pain was looked at from a different light. This time, nature herself had decided to bring out her worst self, killing thousands. When nature decides to spread pain, no force on earth can stop it. This is what came into my mind on a pleasant October morning when I was in Srinagar as the earthquake hit. The tremors went on for five minutes and I remember being utterly shocked, disoriented and extremely worried. It seemed so unlikely at first that it was definitely an earthquake, and not me feeling dizzy. I was talking to a friend at the time and I remember shouting into the phone that I was sure the ground was shaking. My entire trip changed after that. We didn’t know for sure the magnitude of the damage, but the television was always on with updates of deaths and ongoing news. A layer of depression settled over the house. No one talked much and we found ourselves sitting in corners with the heater on, waiting… I’m not sure for what.

The same day, my father went to a neighbouring town, Baramullah, to do some research work. At first I didn’t want him to go as we had heard it was completely destroyed by the earthquake, but he came back saying it was mostly intact except for a few very old buildings and a school, which went down. It was a relief to hear that but news from other towns and villages came in of their death count and how many people were under the rubble. The main problem was that there were no means of getting the people from under the concrete, which gives you an insight into our government’s sense of urgency. The following morning, my father and I went with a voluntary agency (along with many other private teams) to Uri, a town in the northern most part of the Indian side of Kashmir. It was said to be hit the worst, with about five hundred deaths, counting. We bought food, water and some first aid and went up in the mountains. There were several rescue teams which had gone up earlier and were on their way back as well as military convoys with aid, causing a jam. One car was stuck and caused about five hundred cars to be stuck on a road in the mountains which was half a kilometre wide. The location was along the LoC which divides Kashmir above the gorge of the river Jhelum as it winds its way out of Kashmir into Punjab. On the way we could see buildings had crumbled with a few standing pillars or walls.

The sight was terrible, but we still hadn’t seen the worst- homeless people sitting on the mountainside asking for just a bit of water, for the topmost village in Uri, high up in the mountains, had been deprived of water because their ‘chashmas’, or streams had been poisoned by eruptions by the earth, and had now turned black. The village Sultandeki was completely destroyed. It had about eight hundred houses to start with, and each one had fallen. Just one mosque, which probably had a foundation strong enough to handle the impact of the earthquake survived. It was not cold in the daytime, but nights were freezing and these people didn’t have any woolens or blankets. No governmental help had reached this village, even though it was only five miles north of the main town of Uri, which was swarming with reporters and rescuers, and it had already been two days since the earthquake had hit. What was our government doing? Each official was probably signing each equipment or aid document order and then sending it down to the lower ranks. I remember when I came back to Delhi four days later, the government still hadn’t reached that village. The police force was just as bad - Sultandekhi’s chief police officer didn’t know what the real crisis was and was asking the surviving villagers what they needed (remember, this was two days after the earthquake). It’s quite astonishing as to how slow the people in charge responded to the calamity. I came back to Delhi without my father, for he had to complete some work there. I remember being in a daze, my mind full of images of injured children or dead people being carried away on stretchers. The look of desperation, helplessness and hopelessness of the people of Kashmir has left a strong impact on my mind, and so many of our daily troubles now seem utterly trivial.

salman rushdie appeals...

The calamity of Kashmir is a wound on a wounded body. It is death arriving in awful majesty in a place where death has become a grubby, ugly, everyday affair. There has been so much man-made dying in Kashmir that, if one believed in God, one might say that God had become competitive and decided to show the killers — The killers in uniform and the terrorists cloaked in secrecy , what a real killer can do...

For more than half a century the world has turned a blind eye to the political problems of Kashmir. It must not now turn its back on the Kashmiri people. If the flow of aid does not increase at once, it is probable that more people will die in the earthquake’s wintry aftermath than have perished in the quake itself. It is entirely possible that the final death toll will be greater than the tsunami’s. We may be looking at the greatest natural calamity in human history....

But in this case we have the power to avert it... [but] If we fail , because we are tired of disasters or because Kashmir is far away, remote and quarrelsome, and doesn’t feel like our business — Well, then, shame on us...

Excerpted from Quake Tests Kashmir And The World, The Toronto Star, Nov 8, 2005