‘No one is willing to work here’: Kashmir hamlet’s couple chronicle

Zahida, along with Asha workers from Chelen village, crossing the snow covered lanes during the vaccine drive in Budgam. [FPK Photo/Vikar Syed]

“We never know when the car’s engine will break off and freeze us to death in the middle of nowhere.”

In a white-carpeted Budgam homestead, Zahida is boosting the local health response against the thawing emergency.

Attired in a white apron and blue hijab, the medic is giving supplementary shots to the “godforsaken grassroots” in the backdrop of hazy hills and icy winds.

But traversing slippery slopes of Chelen isn’t a routine walk. Owls hoot here at night, while wild dogs prey in packs. Humans hardly make their presence felt around.

However, with her medic husband, Zahida braves the hurdles of nature to keep the inhabitants healthy.

Chelen, a small village has a population of around 850. Most of the men from the village work as daily labourers, some are working in urban areas and some do farming. [FPK Photo/Vikar Syed]

The steward couple drives their car on rough, snow-laden, slippery hills and the narrow road towards this isolated village in district Budgam.

Surrounded by dense forest and lofty mountains, Chelen is located 70 Kilometers away from Kashmir’s central capital, Srinagar.

Lack of welfare works and development projects makes it a remote place with shades of medieval Kashmir.

Health care workers on duty to carry door-to-door COVID vaccination drive in Budgam. [FPK Photo/Vikar Syed]

During Covid breakout 2020, Zahida and her husband Mohammad Maqbool Wani were posted in this village as an emergency health team. Two years later, the couple calls the duty a tough task.

“It’s really hard to work in this location,” Maqbool says. “We would leave from home at 7 am in the morning and drive 100 kilometers to reach here.”

Zahida (wearing a white coat) is photographed along with Marifat Jan as they brief villagers about the drive. Marifat, an Asha worker, helped the team by carrying the vaccine case and other important medical tools across the village. [FPK Photo/Vikar Syed]

One day while driving to work, their car broke down and they were stuck with no help around. Fear of wild animals gloomed over their heads when Maqbool somehow managed to start the engine and got them out of the situation.

“No one is willing to work here because of those harrowing situations,” Zahida says, as she briefs the local health workers about the day’s schedule.

“It’s risky in winters and we never know when the car’s engine will break off and freeze us to death in the middle of nowhere.”

Village Chelen is located on the western side of district Budgam which comes under the Himalayan region of Kashmir. This area records five to six feets of snow every year. [FPK Photo/Vikar Syed]

Working in the Health Department for a decade now, the couple has been serving this village in all the seasons. They’ve crossed the least traveled 5-6 feet snow-laden alleys this winter for the Covid-19 vaccination drive.

“We reached out and vaccinated every single person over the age of 18, and nowadays we’re galloping for booster shots,” Maqbool details.

Zahida always keeps a tea flask and some biscuits handy, their only source of food for the day.

The water in the area, she says, is polluted and for the sake of their health, they don’t take food from anywhere in the village.

“Precaution,” Zahida says, “is better than cure.”

In door to door vaccination drive, Zahida gives a booster shot to an elderly woman in Chelen village. [FPK Photo/Vikar Syed]

For their selfless spirit, the medic couple is highly respected in the village. People from all walks of life consult them for their different health issues.

In the evening, amidst snowfall, Zahida, and her husband Maqbool leave for home after attending to patients and finishing the vaccine drive in the village. [FPK Photo/Vikar Syed]

“We make sure to perform our duties with honesty despite vagaries of weather here,” Zahida says. “And the locals admire us for that.”

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