Climate Change

When no light came from tunnel: The night avalanche struck Kashmir

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The night of horror. [FPK Photo/Sajid Raina.]

The avalanches lately hitting valley have revived the horrors of the night when a scribe received news about a tragedy involving amongst others his own loved one. 

An array of avalanches striking Kashmir and sending body bags from frozen heights has drifted me back to the dusk of 7th February 2019 — when the deadly dispatch came from a tunnel connecting Kashmir with the rest of the world.

I remember everything as snowy, silent and serene—as thick flakes fell like cotton in the morning. It was snowing continuously and every link road was closed in my hometown, Bandipora. Apart from snowbound thoroughfares, the light had gone and darkened our dwellings. The elderly people in our area were anticipating angst-ridden times ahead.

My mother and my elder sister were sick at home since morning and I went out to get some medicines for them. My father working in police department was posted at Jawahar Tunnel, some 150 kilometers away from our town. While he was away, I was playing family headman. 

It was afternoon when my father called me to enquire about my mother’s condition. It was snowing a lot at the tunnel. Their phones weren’t even charged. “Maybe after some time our phones will be switched off,” he told me. “Don’t worry about me, just take care of yourself.”

Soon after the call, he sent some pictures on WhatsApp. The visuals were terrifying. The snow had fused the ground and the roof of the building together. I called my father back: “You should come back home.” 

“When the snow stops,” he assured me, “we’ll make some safe arrangements.”

I returned home with medicine for my mother and sister. At the twilight, my mother told me to arrange some light. The electricity was missing for the last 24 hours and the inverter was not working either. 

I left the home, again, to buy candles at a local shop, which was the last hope of light for that night. It was snowing heavily. My love for snow was fast changing into fear. My phone started going down too. And on the way to the shop, I got a phone call and it was father again.

I could hear cries and commotion. My frenetic queries—“what’s happening there?”—were getting lost in the chaotic din. It scared me a lot. “We’re stuck here,” I heard someone saying. “Avalanche has struck our main building…” 

With that, the phone got disconnected.

My repeated calls went unanswered, as my father’s phone had gone out of network. Standing in the middle of the road, I didn’t know what to do. 

By then, all village vendors were back to their homes. I couldn’t bring home a candle — the only source of light that night. 

I walked back with trembling legs. My mother and sister were asleep. I knew they had slept empty stomach that night. It was a moral burden on me, but the bigger burden was my father’s plunge into the darkness. His phone number was still out of network.

In a feverish state that night, my mother woke up and asked me to call my father. They used to talk daily, but not that day. I somehow diverted her mind and made her sleep again.

I was imagining the worse. To ward off the fretful state of mind, I made frenetic calls to my father’s friends posted with him at the tunnel. They were also “out of network”. My whole body shook over my helplessness. I looked out of my window and saw a snow falling in bulk. I sat alone in the pitch dark night, wondering about the dark destiny ahead of my family.

Suddenly, my journalistic instincts kicked in and I dialed SSP Kulgam’s number — not in professional capacity, but for personal reasons. 

With tears in my eyes, I told him that my father is stuck at Banihal. “Beta, baraf bohat zada gir rehi han, sab theak hoga,” he assured me and hung up the phone. 

I felt like a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.

At 11:30 that night, the news of avalanche broke on internet. It made me even more worried. On WhatsApp, a viral message said that six cops had died in the Jawahar Tunnel avalanche incident. There was no hope left now. 

Alerted by news, some close relatives started calling me. They wanted to talk to my mother but I requested them to wait till morning. They agreed, leaving me alone with the haunting darkness of my room.

The optimist in me didn’t want to give up. I constantly dialed my father’s number before my mobile went black. My impulsive calling at last drained out the battery.

Alone and agonized in that ungodly hour, I began fretting over my father’s fatal fate. It was now a matter of time, I thought, when his body bag would arrive and unleash mourning. My sorrow was unwittingly competing with the snowfall outside my window. Both were swelling with time. 

When the dawn broke out, I went to my neighbor’s house to charge my phone for few minutes and returned home. My maternal uncle called me while I was passing through my courtyard: “We must rush to the tunnel.” 

“Yes, come fast,” I said and walked back to face my wary mother.

“What’s wrong?” she enquired. “What’re you hiding from me? Call papa, I need to talk to him.” 

I tried my best to convince and calm her down. But maternal uncle’s morning visit gave away the secret. He told her about the incident and created chaos in our home. Without consoling my mother and sister, we left home with broken hopes to find father.

After a long journey, we reached Qazigund and saw a large crowd of people near the avalanche spot. Siren sounds were heard everywhere and the general public weren’t allowed to proceed ahead.

Dead bodies were being brought to the local hospital and everyone was running after them. The families of other policemen had also reached there. They were hoping against the hope.

The first dead body brought from the avalanche spot was of Arshid Ahmad—a rookie cop. His family members cried a river over his passing.

Stealing some moments, I asked an ambulance driver about my father. “Nothing can be said right now,” he said. “The things will be clear after the dead bodies will be removed.”

Uncertainty loomed large. Hardly any concerns were being addressed. Nobody was in a mood to listen anything. Women were crying and the hospital buzzed with the casualty count. A local cop’s dead body escalated the mourning. Three more bodies were brought, but none of them was my father. 

“His whereabouts are still unknown,” the ambulance driver told me. “He might be alive.”

But in my mind, I was preparing for the worst, and so was an elderly man with cigarette in his hand. After knowing that my father was stuck in the natural calamity, he told me, “My son [Parvaiz] is also there.”

Our conversation was cut short by another ambulance that screeched to a grinding halt near the hospital gate. When I went to close to it, there was my father in it. “He’s alive,” a person sitting inside shouted. “Leave the way!” 

They rushed him to the emergency ward. I ran behind him, fighting tears and my trembling heart. He was treated and shortly shifted to Srinagar hospital. He waved at me and brought life back to my body.

But not everyone was lucky that day. Seven bodies including five policemen were recovered from the avalanche site. Among them was Parvaiz Ahmad of Ganderbal. His body was recovered on the second day. He was the son of the same old man with whom I had bumped into the hospital. 

There was no light at the end of the tunnel for him and six other families who lost their breadwinners in that snow calamity.

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