Raj Kumar shouts “I won’t go back! I won’t go back!”, in Hindi so loudly that I almost stop the interview so he can calm down.
It’s hasn’t been easy for the 56-year-old, or the four dozen others in the relief centre. Their mud huts on the banks of the river near Jammu city in Indian-administered Kashmir had been hit by flooding before. But on Saturday, the river took everything: homes, possessions, livelihoods. The clothes they were wearing and the donated blankets and the sheets they’re sitting on, are literally all they have left.
Thirty-year-old Neetu (she only has one name), gives me a similar statement. She won’t go back. The water rose chest-high, and she almost lost one of her two children that were with her when the flood water struck. She’s thankful for the food the government is giving them, and for the relief centre, which is usually reserved as a guest house for religious pilgrims. As for what’s next, is something that clouds most of her other thoughts.
“What about my children? What about their schooling, what about clothes for them?” she says. The desperation and utter fear for the future is a shared disillusionment in the group.
Kumar says he was so scared of the river now, even being a grown man, that he would never go near it again.
He wants the government to give him and the others plots so they could rebuild. At this point though, rebuilding isn’t anywhere close to being on the government’s list of short-term goals.
Our team travels north to another part of the Jammu district, where a bridge has been washed out by the waters, cutting off 150,000 people in dozens of villages on the other side. The water has receded somewhat since the rain stopped on Monday. Still, it’s hard imagining the water rising high enough and being strong enough to knock out a chunk of a modern concrete bridge.
Since Saturday, people from the cut-off side have been coming to the edge, shouting that they have no electricity, and their supplies of food, water, and medicines are running low. The army has arrived here half a day before us, and has started building a temporary bridge, which is almost two-thirds done. Boat rescues have already begun.
The commander is polite enough to let us get close to film, but declines being interviewed. He’s just too busy, and there too much to do. Many on our side of the river agree with that assessment.
Karan Singh Raja is also trapped, but on our side. Him, his wife, and daughter were arriving back from a trip to Madhya Pradesh on the weekend when they found the bridge had been washed out, and they were cut off from their home. They’re a lower middle-class family, economically speaking, and are camping out on this side, because they have nowhere else to go, and don’t have the money for a hotel or to travel elsewhere. They’re now waiting for the army to finish the bridge so they can go home.
Since word got out that I was in the region, I’ve been receiving phone calls, texts, and emails from Kashmiris overseas, worried about their relatives. Mobile phone networks are in-and-out in this area, and completely out in other areas since Sunday, so there are no officials numbers on how many people are in trouble.
Estimates in the local media say 400,000 to 600,000 people are still trapped in and around the region. One of the worst affected areas is the capital Srinagar, where the team is travelling to next, and where reports are that many people, hundreds, even thousands, are trapped on the roofs. And with no phone connectivity there, people are worried about their families and friends.
As we leave the area where the army is building the bridge, I can’t help but think that these people are the fortunate ones. For them, help is here. For many others, it’s not even in sight. Just then a military helicopter flies overhead. I’m a little more optimistic now.