'So Little Time Between Hope and Death'

This fall, Kashmir saw its worst floods in more than half a century. My family and I barely survived them.

The view from the top floor of the author's family home during the flooding in Kashmir (Ashwaq Masoodi)

When Kashmir’s uprising was at its peak in the late 1990s, I used to walk along the banks of the Jhelum River after school. Amid the fighting between India, which controls the part of Kashmir where I grew up, and armed groups battling for independence or union with Pakistan, the river was calm in a way that the rest of the region wasn’t. I moved away from my home in Srinagar, the summer capital of India-administered Kashmir, six years ago, but every time I come back, I try to walk on the bridge over the river, to watch the water flow with the same serenity that it had when I was a child.

The same river submerged my family’s house this fall in Kashmir’s worst flooding in more than half a century, which ultimately killed more than 400 people on both the Indian and Pakistani sides of the region’s disputed border. But that river wasn’t the Jhelum of my childhood. It wasn’t the Jhelum I loved.

When the river started to breach banks and burst levees on September 6, I was at my parents’ house in Srinagar, visiting my sister, who had just given birth to a daughter. By then, it had been raining for days. But that evening was almost completely ordinary. We heard the occasional sounds of cars rushing past. Loudspeakers in the nearby mosque broadcast periodic announcements that residents should move to higher floors of their houses in case of flooding, as well as requests for young men to help reinforce the river’s embankment with sandbags.

Otherwise, the city was eerily quiet. We all had dinner together, and I sang a lullaby to my 11-day-old niece until she fell asleep in my room on the second floor. Pa had called local officials, since we knew from radio reports that there was already flooding in some parts of the city—but they assured us that our neighborhood was safe, and that at worst our first floor would be under water. We slept fitfully, getting up frequently to look out our windows, almost convinced by 2:30 a.m. that the water wouldn’t enter our house. Even so, my brother-in-law decided at that point that he didn’t want to take a chance; he and my sister left with my baby niece and 2-year-old nephew for their own house in a neighborhood farther from the river. My parents, my daadi (grandmother), my aunt, and I stayed where we were, thinking we’d be safe on the second floor of the house.

I woke up again at 4:30 in the morning to what sounded like a fast-flowing stream. Once more, I peeped out the window. Dawn was breaking, and as I pressed my face against the cold windowpane, I noticed a white, frothy torrent of water, growing bigger and moving toward us. Farther in the distance, I saw that our neighborhood’s main street had become a river. I ran out of my room to find my family. We were gathered together, frozen in fear, when muddy water started entering our compound through openings in its walls and gates.

* * *

Kashmir has a long history of devastating floods. The Valley of Kashmir, a 19th-century history by the British writer Walter Roper Lawrence, notes vernacular histories documenting severe flooding in the valley along the Jhelum from as far back as 879 AD. The Jhelum’s last major flood, in 1992, killed hundreds of people in Indian-administered Kashmir, and more than 2,000 on the Pakistani side of the border. But until a tragedy strikes you, you never think it will. Inadequately warned about the danger, we didn’t know how to react when mud and water started flowing into our house, filling up the first floor entirely by 5:15 a.m. and rising to the second. I kept track of the water level by staring at the tallest tree in our compound, a lone cherry tree whose top corresponded to about midway between our second and third floors. I could still see the top foot of the tree.

A man removes water from his boat in Srinagar as it rains on September 3. (Danish Ismail/Reuters)

We began to move up to the third floor, taking with us as many of our belongings as we could. By now there was no electricity, and no telephones were working. A battery-operated radio was our only connection with the outside world. We could hear people on the radio, but no one could hear us.

From a small room on the third floor—the top floor of our house—we listened to the splashing of trees hitting the water and our possessions downstairs falling into it. Every time we heard these sounds, we hoped it was someone coming to rescue us. And every time, Pa recited the Arabic verse, “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un,” which means, “We belong to Allah, and to Him we shall return.” He kept saying, “God gave us all this, everything belongs to Him. The one who gave, took it back. And if He wants, He will give it again.”

* * *

It was around 9 a.m. on September 7, with the water still rising, when I realized that I had left something important in my room on the second floor—a collection of journalism pieces from a writing workshop that I had attended in Kashmir in 2008. At the time, Kashmir’s struggle for independence from India was changing dramatically, and protests had largely replaced armed struggle. But that summer, police had fired on civilian demonstrators, killing nearly 20 people. This exacerbated the sense of alienation many Kashmiris felt toward the Indian government, and against this backdrop, my classmates and I, all Kashmiri youth, felt a strong need to tell our own stories. Tens of thousands of civilians had lost their lives in Kashmir’s decades-long revolt, and we believed our history, our present had been written by people who hadn’t lived through what we had lived through. The struggle wasn’t just a border dispute between India and Pakistan—it involved us. It was not about an imaginary line, but real lives, our lives.

A temple stands amid the floodwaters in Indian-administered Kashmir on September 6. (Mukesh Gupta/Reuters)

Every Sunday, we gathered to read and discuss each other’s writing, and to talk about our fears, anger, despair, and hopelessness. The veteran Kashmiri journalist Muzamil Jaleel, who led the class, had compiled for each of us a binder of the best journalism from all over the world, which I now feared might be submerged in the muddy water slithering its way up to the third floor, coming after my family like a rattlesnake. My piece on growing up amid the Kashmir conflict had been an obituary for my doll, which was torn apart by Indian soldiers during a search of our home when I was a child. They would do that—break toys, suspecting bombs might be hidden in their bellies. Others wrote of relatives who were killed by the Indian armed forces, one girl about how she had seen her uncle killed in front of her eyes. I managed to rescue the binder mostly intact. But I was later told that the room where the workshop was held had been completely submerged in the flood.

That afternoon, as the water filled most of the second floor and moved up the staircase to the third, and I could see only half a foot of the cherry tree above the flood, my father gathered us together. He asked us to recite “La ilaha illallah,” “There is no God but Him”—the Quranic verse Muslims say at the time of death. We recited it while Pa looked for a rope to tie us all together and make it easy for our relatives to find our bodies. We continued praying until the evening. It was all we could do.

* * *

We were stuck for days. Nights were particularly terrifying. I couldn’t sleep—I kept picturing the water reaching my neck and then slowly moving upward. I wondered if I should keep my eyes closed so that I wouldn’t see death approaching. What if my parents died before I did? I saw a refrigerator, a dead cow, and a dog floating outside my house. The dog tried to climb onto our roof, but his paws kept slipping until he fell into the water one last time and died. I could see myself dying the same way. One moment you struggle to save yourself and hope you will live, and the next moment you are dead. There is so little time between hope and death.

A man rows a makeshift raft through Srinagar's floodwaters on September 20. (Danish Ismail/Reuters)

By September 9, the water had finally stopped rising. But no one had come to save us. We saw boats intermittently sailing past, and my father stood at the window, yelling for help. One local had managed to find a boat and had gone to save his relatives. He didn’t stop for us. Another boat came to rescue an old man whose family was sure he would die and wanted him to have a proper funeral. An army boat came, but only to pick up a police official and his family. Each time my father shouted, the people in the boats shouted back to explain why they couldn’t help us. We kept flailing our hands toward the sole government helicopter hovering over us, but while it descended a few times, it didn’t come for us. I was shaking and sobbing, begging to live. But there was no one listening, especially not the government. Because of its location near an army cantonment, my family’s house was in a so-called VIP part of the city. If we were receiving the VIP treatment, I can’t imagine what happened to the common man.

Finally, Pa convinced a neighbor in a boat to pick us up. He first took my father and our daadi—who is about 90, though she doesn't know her exact age—and came back for the rest of us five hours later. The neighbor ultimately saved 23 people, who, like many of those rescued in the city, were aided by locals rather than the government. As we sat in the boat, our neighbors, and the men in the Central Reserve Police Force camp near our house, shouted at us, pleading the same way we had for someone to help them. I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid we would drown too—no one in my family knew how to swim. But at around 3 p.m. on September 9, we reached Sonwar, an area to the south of Srinagar that was less severely flooded.

I had a rough idea of what a relief camp looked like, but I had never imagined myself in one. People with money, people without money, people of other religions, people of my own religion were all camped there. Yellow rice wrapped in newspapers was distributed. I overheard a woman congratulating a man. “At least you survived,” she said. The man replied, “For those who died the only painful moment was the time of death. For people like us, who lost everything, the struggle begins now. It’s not easy to stand up again when everything you had is taken away in a single blow.”

When I left the relief camp, I hardly recognized the roads. The Srinagar museum where I went as a kid, the adjacent library from which I borrowed the entire collection of Jane Austen’s novels as a teenager, the cultural academy that housed rare manuscripts and ancient texts—all these landmarks were unrecognizable now. The entire city had changed. The majestic Chinar tree I remembered from my childhood—a kind of tree Kashmir is famous for—had fallen onto the banks of my Jhelum. But the Jhelum itself was flowing as serenely as ever.