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Housing the dead

On February 20, 2005 a snow storm struck a Gujjar hamlet Waltengu Nar in South Kashmir. 158 people died. The hutments where the people once lived, house the dead now as heaps of accumulated snow hampered the burial of bodies. One year after the tragedy Peerzada Arshad Hamid finds images of devastation intact in the village.

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Waltengu, Kashmir
Feb 28, 2006:

Stuck inside her crumbled house caught in a snow storm Hajra heard the cries of her 1-year old girl continuously for two days.

“Then there was silence.” says Hajra recalling the tragedy that hit Waltengu Nar, a hamlet in South Kashmir in February last year.

“I wanted to rescue her but I was stuck in the debris, so was she. After two days she succumbed to hunger, under the load of debris”

It took two more days for rescuers to reach Hajra and she survived with a paraplegic hand. None of her family members did.

One year after the incident she recalls what she says was a doomsday for this village, “It was around 2 pm. It had been snowing for the last two days. My husband and my 8-year old son went out to make way in the snow. Suddenly a noisy storm of snow descended upon the village. The terrace of my house collapsed, and I was struck inside it along with my daughter.”

Hajra’s family now lies buried in a nearby hut that was once the house of Kuba Khan. So lays Kuba Khan and his family. Unable to find earth under 10 to 20 feet of snow 14 bodies were buried in Khan’s hut. As snow melted later uncovering the graves people filled the hutments with soil.

In February 2005, 158 people died in a snow storm in Waltengu Nar. Many of the hutments where the people once lived still stand here, housing the dead. Waltangu Nar is a graveyard now. Hutments converted into mass graves. A distinctive silence pervades all over coupled by restricted movement along the hilly terrain.

Houses still lying collapsed. Bricks and timber scattered along with the debris. Thatched huts left vacated. Uprooted trees still to be removed. One year after, the images of devastation and tragedy, are still intact in the village.

Stone foundations of hutments intact. Grasses sprout on the soil filling the room spaces. Wooden sticks fencing the graves, to prevent movement above it.

Hajra lives with her parents now. Despite being young she declines to remarry, “what new marriage, my left arm is paralysed now, who will marry me?” She says

Hajra spends her day on a hillock in the outskirts of village engrosses in sweet memories of the past. “I try to keep my mind occupied with memories of my children and husband, how can I forget the innocent faces of my children and sympathy of my husband”, says Hajra

Bashir Ahmad Khan lost his five children in the snow storm. He and his wife live in the newly constructed colony for survivors. "The storm took away everything from me, my world, my hopes everything,” Khan says swabbing tears from the bearded face.

Khan heads the Gujjar Committee named Victims of Waltangu Nar which strives for the rehabilitation of the survivors of snow storm. Waltengu was declared unsafe after the snowstorm and the inhabitants shifted.

Many of the survivors of Waltengu Nar still live in rented accomdations as the structures meant for rehabilitating them are yet to be completed and the tents provided to them were not good enough for winter.

“If government frails to provide us accommodation, we will be forced to go back to the hamlet,” says Abdul Gani Deedar, 65, a survivor.

So far 35 structures have been constructed for the families of survivors. In all 128 are needed. And many consider the area earmarked by government non-feasible for construction of houses. The victims allege that the relief assistance announced by the government of India from Prime Minister’s relief fund is yet to reach them.

Relief experts have an adage: for the survivors of a natural disaster, a second man made disaster also may be looming- the rehabilitation.

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