As the river Jhelum breached its embankments and flooded several places in Pampore town on the Srinagar outskirts during the intervening night of September 6 and 7, nine youth from Drangbal here dived into the raging waters to get hold of two large sand-extraction boats anchored some 500 feet away. They quickly jumped into the river by risking their lives and over the next three days, these brave-hearts rescued around 2000 people, including children and elderly men and women, and some non-Kashmiri labourers caught in the flood waters.
“We cut the ropes off the two boats after jumping into the river and swimming with great difficulty to finally reach them,” said 38-year-old Fayaz Ahmad Bhat who jumped into the flooded Jhelum that day along with his eight friends, knowing that the only two boats in sight could be lifesaving for the trapped people.
As the flow of water was too fast, they could finally make it to the boats only after four failed attempts earlier. “Although it was very dangerous to jump into the river at that time and we could have lost our lives, we had to take that risk to save so many other lives at risk that day.”
Once the boats were brought to the shores, the nine friends first came to the rescue of some non-local labourers who were shivering in fear and craving for help from a submerged building. “After bringing them to a safer place, we headed to rescue our families and other people caught in the flood waters,” recalls Bhat.
The nine friends divided themselves into two groups and set out to rescue the trapped people in the two boats that could carry over 50 people at a time. In each round, which sometimes took two to three hours, they would bring 50 to 60 people to safer grounds. In the next three days, working tirelessly from dawn to dusk, they were able to rescue around 2000 people.
The flood water had by then submerged all the houses in the area, with water reaching much above the first floor.
Bhat says till the morning of September 7, they had hoped for some government agency to show up and rescue the marooned people. But no one turned up, and it was getting late. After successfully recovering the two boats from the raging Jhelum, and knowing that they could swim, they immediately set out on their voluntary mission. With no previous experience of handling a boat, they did not know how to wade through the waters. But that did not deter them.
“When we would go inside the inundated colonies to bring out people, it would sometimes take us more than two hours for an otherwise 10 minute distance,” says Farooq Ahmad, 40, who sells barbecues on a roadside in Drangbal.
Being elders in their group, Farooq and Fayaz would take all the critical decisions in three days of hard work. There was no room for indecision or disagreements that could have marred their rescue efforts. The rest of the seven boys would listen to the elders who coordinated and directed the rescue efforts, trusting their experience and expertise.
“Together we made a good team since we had a good understanding and everyone of us wanted to come to the rescue of people and save as many lives,” says Farooq. “At times we would carry around 100 people, including children and women, in one boat. We didn’t discriminate with anyone, we rescued everyone who came in our way.”
Fearing the boat might drown because of the increased weight, all the eight friends would at times be on one boat till the rescued people were brought to safer places. Just in case the boat capsizes, Farooq says they could still save some people by swimming out of the flood waters.
“We didn’t rest much for all those three days and ate very little, sometimes taking only some water in between short breaks, knowing that there were more people trapped who needed our help,” says Farooq. “We had decided that even if we die, we will make all efforts to save as many people as we could with the help of those two boats.” They even ferried drinking water from the nearby villages for the stranded people in three plastic water tanks which they somehow managed on their own.
Fortunately the two boats did not fail the nine brave-hearts who in turn did not give up rescuing people out of the flood waters. One of the two boats lies damaged on a nearby riverbank. And the Jhelum flows quietly beneath the damaged boat.