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Valley of Death

On Destruction’s Trail

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A 900 kilometre journey through death, pain, ruins, heroism and anger

The chopper dives in, slants and rises again. We are in between two cliffs. Below, the Alaknanda gushes, swollen and angry. The day before, a rescue chopper had crashed in Gaurikund and burst into flames.

“Why do you want to go there?” the pilot says into the microphone.

“To see what used to be,” I say.

“It is all gone,” he says.

Fighting vertigo and trying to focus on the destruction below seems difficult. There is no guarantee we will be flown back. There are only assurances, and a few names—Sushil, Rohit—of those in charge of the rescue efforts. Mobile networks are already gone in Govind Ghat, a town in Chamoli district destroyed by the floods.

A road just ends into the river. Collapses into it. The river cuts the sand underneath the road like it did in many other places along the 300 km stretch for which we followed it. Alaknanda, Mandakini, Bhagirathi. Hundreds of cars and buses are stranded. There are half-houses, and teeming masses of people queuing up on the other side of the river. Beyond, there’s the river bed—white rocks and sand. They said it would rain soon. In this land of extreme weather, you never know.

Saturday afternoon, as the weather gets tricky, we are let off the chopper onto a makeshift helipad on the river bed. A few army personnel are lining people up to be airlifted to Joshimath. A three kilometre stretch of road is broken in this region, isolating one side from the rest of the world.

It is white. White sand, white rocks. Water gushes forth, brown and thick. The sound is like that of a helicopter drone. It drowns everything around it. The cries of a child who wants his father brought to him. The wails of women waiting for their husbands, refusing to leave unless they are ferried to this side of the raging river.

Women and children are a priority. And the sick and infirm. Men can manage for a while.

“This wasn’t the river bed. There used to be a parking lot here. A multi-storey parking lot,” a soldier says.

Up ahead, there is a rope bridge. A little boy stands on this side crying, waiting for his father to come across. He is inconsolable. His mother refuses to leave without the father. They were stuck in different places along the narrow trek to Hemkund Sahib, a Sikh pilgrimage site associated with Guru Gobind Singh’s previous incarnation as Dusht Daman. Tying a rope around the waist and gliding across the hungry river, ready to swallow anything thrown in its path, is difficult. Hence, the army has to go through the painstaking task of flying the men, women, and children from one side of the river to the other. From there, they can cross more mountains to safety.

Last night, the army had built a temporary bridge with wooden planks secured by ropes. The river washed it away, just like it had the iron bridge that once connected the two banks. A part of the bridge is deposited on this new river bed. There are also other things there— desks, chairs, clothes and rotting vegetables. Leftovers of past lives. We try not to think of the bodies that might be buried under. Perhaps we are standing on a graveyard.

Captain Gulati, piloting a private chopper, patiently airlifts four or five people at a time, and flies them to this side. For two hours, he does this. There are reunions and tears. There are stories of horror, of lives and limbs lost.

On this side, the army personnel tell the pilgrims to trek upwards, get to the road, and then take the narrow mountain paths to where cars would bring them to Joshimath. In between, there are mountains, and landslides. Time is running out. They need to cross three mountains.

Govind Ghat, at a height of 6,000 feet, lies on the way to Hemkund Sahib. Only accessible between June and October when the snow has melted, the shrine—around 15 km up, with a stopover at Ghangharia, also the gateway to Valley of Flowers—is reached on foot over a journey of two days from Govind Ghat.

A facade of half-buildings stand exposed to the view; sunglasses are stacked as if still on display. These were shops. While part of the building is gone, the front stays, untouched. These buildings came up after the year 2000, Parveen, a young local, says, “Earlier there were jungles here. That’s what our parents tell us.”

There’s a reception desk that was uprooted from its place and washed away. A few registers lie on the rocks a few feet away. In a pink notebook that belonged to Hotel Suvidha there are entries—“Boer, Dutch, 16.7.2012”.

Part of the Govind Ghat Gurdwara was also washed away. A few men go up to the building to retrieve bags they had left behind on their trek toward Hemkund Sahib. A few offer water bottles and snacks to others.

They had walked for hours on a treacherous path with the river on one side to reach here after the army announced they should all come down to be rescued. “It was scary. The width of the path was only a foot. We had elderly men and women, and children. It took us almost 10-12 hours,” says Tejinder Abohar. Eleven in his group had been in Hemkund. They heard the army announce that the weather would get worse on 24 and 25 June and decided to walk down. “It was tough. We carried the weak on our shoulders. There was the river raging below us, and the mountain looked like it would fall anytime,” he said.

We stop by what used to be the Jyoty Guest House. The banner survived the fury. It flutters in the wind. There is an unusual calm about the place. The welcome sign is still there—two folded hands, and the type in bold. But everyone’s leaving this place.

Gurpinder Singh doesn’t want to believe anyone died.

“Nobody dies here. This place is blessed,” he says. “We can’t blame it on the gods.”

It is reassuring. Perhaps everyone is in denial. Two fire department personnel come down the path and ask everyone to leave the river bed.

“Go up. It’s going to rain,” constable Virendra says.

A few drops fall. The river rises again, foaming and frothing.

“I am scared of mountains. So many villages have been destroyed. There was one that was three kilometres up the hill. The river ate it up,” he says.

“Was that Pulna?”

“It is all gone now. You can’t tell if there was once a village,” he says.

They installed an iron bridge two years ago in Pulna. Before that there used to be a wooden one, with no railings, and the villagers would take it down when the river threatened to dismantle it. It connected the villagers to the Shamila forest, where they grazed their cattle.

On the morning of 15 June, Hemanti Chauhan saw the bridge cave in. It had been raining heavily since the previous night. She was on the phone with her friend who was asking her to leave the area. The clock had just struck eight. That’s when the roar came and the bridge crumbled. It fell diagonally across the river and split into two halves. The river came towards the village.

“It seemed it was galloping,” she says. “I ran inside to see if I could gather some jewellery and money, but the river had leapt up. We ran out, and started climbing upwards.”

Located in the Valley of Flowers, the twin villages of Pulna and Bhuyndar were destroyed by the floods. Women were evacuated and brought to Joshimath. Two days had passed and they were still waiting for their husbands and children, who were still stranded with the pilgrims in the valley.

On Saturday, as each chopper landed, they would run towards the fencing to see if their people were there. In between the landings and take-offs, they told me about their village.

“It was beautiful. Flowers bloomed everywhere,” said Yashodhara, who married when she was 17 and came to live in Pulna. They had just reconstructed the temple there, put in marble flooring and tiles. A Ramlila would be staged during the festival season and the women would dress in their best clothes.

“We had houses that had three floors. We were a wealthy village,” she says.

Laxman Ganga tumbled down by her hamlet, and later joined the Alaknanda river three kilometres downstream where the water wasn’t so tumultuous. They hadn’t anticipated the river betraying them.

She is confused, and almost in denial. She can’t say who died and who survived. Rajendra Bhandari, the MLA of Badrinath, says he had been to these villages but men don’t want to leave. The women crowd around him, asking him to bring them back.

Hemanti is tired of promises. It wasn’t their fault the cloud burst happened in Bhuyndar and the river swept away Pulna. In an ordinary instant, everything was altered forever.

“If you saw it you’d know. The river parted in two. Half came to us. We were running, and when we turned around, the water was following us,” she says. “We are refugees now. We got here three days ago, and have nowhere to go.” These twin settlements, home to 100 families, had been around for almost a century. Pulna was their winter residence, and Bhuyndar, their summer abode. Hemanti says the elders used to speak about torrential rains causing some destruction 70 years ago. But the village survived.

Then, development started to happen. Land was leased out to builders to construct rest houses and hotels. Ghangharia, which is in the Bhuyndar valley, was to be the site of a road that could ferry pilgrims and tourists. Villagers wanted their stake.

Landslides are common in this area. Boulders stick out of the mountains, ready to fall at the slightest tremor.

They paid a price for haphazard development. There are too many hotels. Too many guest houses. Too many tourists. Too much greed.

Bhandari had run into an argument with the Chief Minister the day before.

“There are thousands of stranded people and only 80 helicopters, thousands of bodies and nobody to pick those up,” he says. “I have been going to these areas and asking them to leave. Men don’t want to leave their land. There is no land. It is all water.”

But the women are upset.

“Let’s get the children out,” Bhandari says.

People queue around him. They drop names.

“I am a member of the local BJP outfit. My people are stuck. These are the names,” a man says, as he hands over the slip of paper to Bhandari.

“By evening I am hoping to get 2,000 people out,” Bhandari says.

“Please note down ‘Trilok’,” Hemanti says.

But Ram Niwas Vohra pushes forward.

“I am a BJP member,” he says. “I also know the district magistrate.”

“It is a gentleman’s promise. I will get your people out,” Bhandari says.

“I want to snatch the guns from the army and shoot myself. What is this idea of saving at least one person per family. How do we live?” Hemanti says, as she retreats from the group. “They only want to get the tourists out first. They say the locals know the terrain. They will manage.”

The villagers had climbed up the narrow path to find shelter on a mountain road. Hundreds of pilgrims were stranded here. Everyone wanted to get out. When the chopper came, a fight broke out. The pilot flew off to Ghangharia saying the tension should be resolved first. Finally, two villagers and two pilgrims were the combination agreed upon. That’s how the rescue began. It’s not over yet, she says.

But resources are scarce.

“If it rains again, and it will, there will be more destruction,” Bhandari says.

The women start weeping.

“Please give them food,” Yashodhara says. “At least do this much.”

In the cacophony of the choppers, her voice trails off.

We first encountered the disaster on our way up to Rudraprayag on Friday, almost a week after the tragedy first struck. In Srinagar, you couldn’t tell the difference between what was being constructed—a dam, a reservoir—and what had been destroyed.

At Rudraprayag, a small helipad had been set up to airlift stranded people from Badrinath, and other devastated areas. A lone helicopter was ready to take off. They had loaded it with cartons full of food and water bottles. The pilot gave the thumbs up and the chopper flew away. There were thousands still stranded in isolated parts and till they were rescued, the army and the IAF were dropping off food.

The terrain was difficult, almost unrelenting. There was limited space for landing helicopters, and preparing helipads was a difficult task.

At Gauchar the other day, Air Vice Marshal SRK Nair, said no disaster is the same. The hills present a unique challenge. The IAF, which stepped in later, set up focal points at various places, including a mini air base at Dharasu where the first C-130J ‘Super Hercules’ aircraft from the Hindon Airbase landed. The 1,300-foot long base was created by winging down army personnel who cut the jungles and cleared the ground.

“We flew in a mini hospital of sorts, got doctors there, and 15 commandos to guard the area,” said Nair. “We are just running short of time. There is a lot of work to be done.”

On Tuesday, an Mi-17 V5 chopper of the Indian Air Force crashed in Gaurikund, the second to crash in the region. Man can only do so much. “The weather takes you by surprise,” Nair said. THERE IS THE muddy river—Alaknanda—that roars its way toward the plains. Dark and pregnant with all it is carrying—bridges, gas cylinders, houses, memories, bodies.

As we move up to Shivalik, nestled in the Himalayas, cars zip past us on narrow mountain passes carrying relief materials. Buses tumble down carrying survivors. Several states have arranged for free transport services to carry pilgrims back to their native places.

The dusk settles, and the driver points to what seems like the middle of the river.

“There used to be a house there. There used to be a bridge, too,” he says.

This is in Chamoli, one of the worst-affected regions in Uttarakhand.

There are shrines dedicated to gods along the way.

At Helang, a man grins at us. The weather is sunny. The mountains look calm, but it is an illusion.

In Karnprayag, water lines have been destroyed. We keep climbing up, eager to make it to Joshimath. They say you can drive up till there, and then assess the situation. Previously, the road was broken. But they have fixed it now, given the urgency of the situation.

At Pipalkoti, there are a few men watching news in a hotel. At Le Meadows hotel, there are no guests. We are ushered into a room, and spend the night in the quiet town.

I draw the curtains. The mountains look scary.

At Joshimath, choppers fly in and out. This is where the Ibex Brigade of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) have a base. Rescue operations are in full swing.

There are vans and jeeps and SUVs that have been arranged by the state government to ferry survivors to Dehradun and Rishikesh. There are relief camps and phone stations, and television crews who are flying with the army to shoot footage of the destruction. Logistics support was provided by 5009 Company ASC, which directly helped the civilians with food, water and fuel. They fed more than 10,000 people between 15 and 21 June, says Col. Avinash Tripathi.

“After that, we lost count of how many,” he says. “This is one of the most challenging and complex logistics operations carried out as people were stuck and had to be provided relief and food. Lots of disruptions in rescue, and it is a prolonged affair.”

We are asked to wait. We don’t want to hamper rescue operations. Two seats in a chopper for us translate into no rescue for two stranded people who might be injured.

“If you can get us there, it would help us see what was lost, what the river took,” I say.

Col. Sukhdeep Singh says the river took it all.

“If we get you there, we can’t guarantee we will bring you back,” he says.

A woman in a head scarf is munching on snacks. She says her name is Mahamandeleshwar Durga Giri Ma.

Her ashram wasn’t swept away when the deluge came. But others disappeared one morning. She gathered her belongings and flew in a rescue chopper from the Badrinath area to Joshimath.

“We predicted this. On ekadashi, we had got the signal. We had alerted everyone. God had told us,” she says. “Sins have increased. The sadhus are raping young women who are sanyasins. So many of us have cried, banging our heads against the shivling.”

A woman watches her. Her name is Baby and she is from Jhansi. She has been here in Joshimath for three days waiting for her brother to be rescued from Badrinath.

“My family is telling me to come back. But I won’t go without him,” she says. “Please tell the army to take me there. If they can’t find him, I will search for him.”

The sadhavi dismisses Baby’s story. She says the army didn’t get her bags. Baby looks at her, and walks away. “We were praying to the God to show his might against all the sins that have been brought upon the holy men and women,” she continues.

“Why would you pray for disaster?” I say.

“At least sins have been wiped away. In a few days Badrinath will meet the same fate,” she says.

I leave. There’s enough to deal with already.

“You might have to stay the night there,” says Brigadier Devinder Singh, Vice President, Northern Region of Deccan Aviation, a private chopper fleet, which has been pressed into service to aid the rescue efforts. “There’s a hotel there. It is being used to house the evacuees. You can stay there.”

Ruhani Kaur, Open’s photo editor, who is travelling with me, is worried. I make a few calls, tell my mother we are going to Govind Ghat. Alert my editors.

And we fly.

We land in a different area. There’s no hotel here. No Bhandari Guest House, no langars, no habitation. Only destruction.

The next day at Gauchar air base, one of the focal points of the rescue operations, local women are busy frying puris. These will be air dropped. Several NGOs have come to aid in the rescue efforts.

SRK Nair is here. In one corner, he is briefing the IAF pilots, congratulating them on their efforts, their innovative approaches to rescue efforts.

He tells me how Captain Nikhil Nair spotted a couple stranded on a hilltop and winged down an ITBP personnel who then lifted the two one by one.

“He couldn’t have landed the chopper there. But this is how we are doing it,” he says.

There are many such stories, he says. But this isn’t the time to recount all of those.

Operation Sahayata it is called. There are 60-odd photos of army personnel carrying out rescue operations in different sectors—Harsil, Tawaghat, Joshimath, Kedarnath. Phases of operations are compiled on a sheet and pasted on a map of the region.

Ph I—Provide succour. Ph II—rescue. Ph III—evacuate. Ph IV—sustain. Ph V—consolidate. Ph VI—repair.

Men from the gurkha regiment are waiting to be air dropped into the Kedarnath area. But operations in that sector have been suspended due to rains on Sunday.

Roshan Chhetri is among the 12 men who are crouching on the floor, ready to run to the aircraft. The backpack he is carrying contains Maggi packets, a burner, a sleeping bag, a change of clothes, some first-aid materials, a compass, a water filter, and biscuits. He is also carrying a photo of his family in his wallet.

The plan is to drop them off for combing operations to find people stranded in isolated regions in Kedarnath sector. Already, around 40 members of the gurkha regiment are in the forests looking for survivors.

“We are to stay for three days. But even if it six months, we will be okay. We are hill people. We know the terrain. We will manage somehow,” he says.

But there’s fear, too. He tries to hide it. When the water comes, no terrain is familiar.

There are around 6,000 people stuck in Gaurikund near Kedarnath. That’s a difficult area to reach. That’s where on-foot rescue needs to be done, I am told.

A man is carrying a printout of a family photo featuring his brother. He approaches each one of the survivors that have been brought from Gaurikund to ask if they have seen him.

Suraj Kanwar, an old woman from Tonk district in Rajasthan, says she might have. He is hopeful again.

She is here after being stuck for nine days.

“I did char dham (‘four shrines’),” she says.

Lunch is served, and they are led to buses that will take them back.

The other day, a man boarded a bus to Rishikesh. He had been walking with his wife when she got swept away. There are many stories.

An old man is led to a chopper by army personnel. His feet are bandaged. He slowly stretches out, and grabs the shoulder of an officer. A pilot takes the other side. Together they carry him to the chopper.

In Birahi in Chamoli, as we descend, we see the River Resort sign. Last time we had been here, we had asked the Tapovan Resort across the road for a room.

“Everything’s shut,” a man had said. “There’s no electricity. Besides, who knows how long we have.”

The River Resort, a Garhwal tourism building, was washed away on 15 July. All night, the water kept rising. The guests were evacuated early morning. Soon, the resort just crumbled into the river. Two rooms have survived. They sit forlorn. The land juts out, but cracks appear.

“Don’t go further,” a local tells Ruhani. “It can go down any moment.”

“Why do you live here? Mountain on one side, river on another,” I ask.

“This is home. Where else will we go? We run each time we suspect there will be a landslide, or a flood,” he says. “How can you spend your lives running away?” I ask.

On the way to Srinagar, there is another landslide. I have already lost count of the number of landslides we have seen.

It will take five days to clear the road. We take the detour, up via Khirsu Kherakhal, on kutcha roads. In each hotel where we stayed, we were the only guests. They switched on the lights, gave us tea, served us dinner, and spoke about the tragedy.

In Srinagar, late into the night, we see people wearing masks. There’s a stench. Of bodies, they say. They say there will be epidemics soon. The worst is not over yet. The stench lingers on through the descent. The river turns calmer.

The next day, we stop at a local eatery on the river bank near Dev Prayag.

A man is standing on the balcony watching the river. It was blue once. Now, it is brown, thick and unfamiliar.

“Did you see?” I ask.

“What?”

“Bodies,” I say.

He looks away.

“There will be many of them,” he says.

After 1,400 km into the hills, trying to get to places—Kedarnath, Guptkashi, Badrinath, Gaurikund—we are tired. Ashamed of our own voyeurism.

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