‘Trapped 3 Days Between a Pandemic and a Landslide on J&K Highway’
This was probably the most grinding experience of our lives.
Stuck in Delhi for over two months due to the coronavirus lockdown, I was adamant to leave behind the Delhi heat and go back into the mountains for that breath of fresh air. I registered on every possible rescue portal and was constantly following the updates regarding stranded students being provided transport to go home.
Little did I know, my struggle to go home would lead me to be one among hundreds stranded in the midst of nowhere, with nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep.
For me and the people around me, watching rocks fall relentlessly and ruthlessly from the mountainside on the Jammu and Kashmir highway, while we were stranded in buses for days with no food or water.
From being stranded in Delhi to being stranded on a road with no home, hotel or shop in sight, I felt like everything in the universe was working against me.
Those who have travelled by the J&K highway know how unpredictable and unreliable that road is. Thousands are stuck on that highway every month.
A landslide started minutes before we reached Panthal Bridge, near Ramban on 20 May. A landslide so intense that it felt like there would be no road left by the time it ends, if at all it ends.
The dust from the rocks spread everywhere and for a while we could see nothing around us, there was no mountain, no river, and no road; just us, alone, trying hard to grasp the brutal reality before us.
Recipe for Nightmare
Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic is hard as it is, but when you throw travelling, being stuck in one of the worst landslides for three nights into the mix, it is a nightmare that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.
Social distancing seems reasonable to talk about when you are at home but when you are stuck on a mountain top, with no means to either go forward or to retreat back into the plains, it starts to feel like a privilege that you can’t afford.
On the first morning, sitting on the side of the mountain, we nibbled some biscuits, bananas and shared a packet of milk. This was the last of the food we carried with us. We sent as many requests for food and assistance to the authorities as was possible before the batteries in our phones died. We texted and tweeted every official we could think of.
When no help seemed accessible, we cooked on the side of the road with wood and fire. We went around and collected food items from truck drivers, who are known to stock it all in case of a situation just like ours.
A kind passerby, who lived somewhere in those mountains gave us some rice.
‘Aisa landslide bahut saalon baad dekh raha hoon.’ (I haven’t seen such landslide in years), he said.
One Misfortune After Another
That plate of undercooked rice and chicken that we had on a mountaintop with strangers will probably be the most memorable lunch of our lives. Amidst the chaos, Kashmiris watched in admiration as the much disciplined Ladakhis formed a line to collect their portion of the food. An old couple, travelling with their grandson, talked about crossing the river and walking miles to reach the other side of the mountain. Parents carrying their new born baby looked around helplessly.
Police men, engineers and workers kept streaming in and out. Some said it would take days to clear out the road, some said it would only take a couple of hours if and when the landslide stops. A wrecked truck lying sideways in the middle of the road, just under the landslide, was a stark reminder that it could have been us. This thought was enough to send shivers down our spine.
A labourer, on his way home from Hyderabad stepped down from his bus, to talk to someone over his phone, to his waiting family perhaps. He slipped, fell into the gorge and died.
A kind family friend in Jammu managed to send over some food. I had to divide 15 rotis between the 25 people in my bus. I will never be able to forget the face of a hungry child eating his share of half roti, it broke whatever was left of my spirit.
The concerned authorities kept telling us that they are doing all that they can, and that this is a natural phenomena that can’t be stopped. Meanwhile, the new born baby was still without milk and we were now carrying a dead body with us.
After three days of continuous landslide and multiple accidents, we felt closer to death than life. Our homes were on the other side of what felt like hell at the time and reaching it felt almost like a dream. The nights we couldn’t sleep on the hard seats of our buses, we talked under the stars, in the cold windy nights and found comfort in the presence of each other.
How We Became Panthal Survivors
On our last morning on the road, when we were devoid of all hope, the landslide finally paused and our bus started moving. The rocks looked like they were barely hanging on the side of the mountain and a little wind would have thrown them and us into the waiting gorge on the other side. It felt like we had stopped breathing and started again only after we crossed the bridge where just some days ago, these rocks had crushed a truck.
I looked around at the people in my bus, at their teary-eyed, hopeful smiles. The tears were of relief that we were alive, of joy that we were on the way home, and of strength in the face of what we had faced.
When we began this journey in Delhi on 18 May, we wanted nothing more than to reach home, safe and sound. We maintained social distancing and covered ourselves with masks, gloves and kept using sanitizer as our greatest worry was coming in contact with the coronavirus. By the time we reached our hometown, Srinagar on 22 May, it had become the least of our worries.
The disaster that lay before us felt more profound in every sense and it gave everything else a new dimension. We call ourselves Panthal survivors, because that’s what it was all about, pulling ourselves and each other through difficult situations despite all odds. And maybe, just maybe, that’s how we can survive this pandemic too.
This was probably the most grinding experience of our lives.
I would remember it by the faces of the people around me, who even though strangers, I would remember for a lifetime because that’s what happens when you overcome difficult situations together.
I would remember it by those single meals we shared, finding solidarity and kindness in the midst of nowhere. I would also remember it by a sky full of stars every night at that altitude. I had never seen that many stars before in my life. That’s why I lingered outside every night, for that extra moment, to take it in, the beauty of it, along with everything else.
(All 'My Report' branded stories are submitted by citizen journalists to The Quint. Though The Quint inquires into the claims/allegations from all parties before publishing, the report and the views expressed above are the citizen journalist's own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for the same.)
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