The Flash Floods in Leh (Part 1)

Its hard to blog when you are slipping in and out of a state of Nirvana through yoga and trekking bliss as I have since my last post, but nothing brings one back down to earth like… earth.  Water soil and stone pushed to deadly speeds ravaging all in their wake.  Mud tossing cars and buses into houses like a tempestuous two-year old and his toys.  What’s forced me to sit and write is the most horrendous catastrophe I have ever seen, and it still continues…

Day 1: Shock and Awe

A Swiss friends and I were lucky enough to be in Nubra Valley, just north of the cataclysmic cloud burst, one of the only areas in the region not affected by the storms that rocked the region of Ladakh.  We made our way over the highest mountain pass in the world that morning without a hitch, and oblivious to the carnage that lay waiting in the valley below.  We must have seemed foolish, walking into the Changspa area of Leh with our packs on our backs and smiles on our faces… but it was soon clear that something was wrong.  All the shops were shut, hotels full, and faces grim.  As soon as we understood that we had arrived in a serious situation, we stocked up on supplies, changed to work clothes, and headed down to help.

It seemed at first that perhaps people were freaking out for nothing.  What damage?  What storm came through here?  “Everyone is dead?”   It looked dusty and dirty as usual, except for a few dead dogs and donkeys on the side of the road.  But when I arrived at the scene of the worst destruction, it became clear that the talk was true.  The entire area of the city that lay in a valley had been torn in two and washed away.  Only halves of houses remained.  One could stare into what once was a kitchen or what was left of a shop.  Cars lay on top of buildings.  The entire bus station was gone, and buses could be found smashed into buildings for miles below.

There wasn’t much I could do for ten minutes, but stare in awe at the sheer force of nature and obvious human disaster.  A man in a  Red Cross vest brought me back to life and action when  he came and shouted “Everyone to the trucks!”  So we ran into the large military vehicles waiting for us, and although I was squeezed in under the canvas, I managed to get a seat with a view.

It was unbelievable….  mud, debris, dust, destruction, and angry brown water wherever we went.  There were no villages anymore, only half-buried houses and overturned vehicles.  The hills were already speckled with emergency tents… survivors had fled for high ground, and they still trudged along the side of the road.  They didn’t push wheelbarrows of valuables, or carry TVs and photo albums.  They carried each other.

We arrived at a village called Choglamsar.  At least they said it had been a village, but what I saw was just water, mud, and rubble.  We had been brought to help, but it was soon made clear that there was nothing that we could do.  The Indian army was there.  Half of them working on a house-sized mass of trees, boulders and debris that had deposited itself in the middle of the road, the other half were just standing around, shocked and not sure what to do.  What could I do?  The only thing that I thought might help was to document with my camera.  So I spent my first relief effort shooting the brown wet earth, and the grey rainy skies above.  The only places to walk were along make-shift bridges of logs, stones, mattresses, doors, and even the holy Buddhist rock piles.  The earth beneath our feet was bubbling and alive.  You could step on hardened packed mud in one step, and sink to your waist in the next.  We clung to gates, barbed wire and each other to keep from falling into the deadly sweeping waters.  Suddenly the brown river beneath us began to pick up speed, and the army that had been eager to transfer us there to help, soon realized that more water was on the way and we were all in danger, and began to evacuate us quickly.

We had come to help, and had only been in the way.  It was hard to take, but we had to call it a day.  We packed into one of the few open stores to buy whatever supplies we could.  I have never seen instant noodles fly off the shelves in such a panic.  How long would be isolated from supplies and help?  How long would the food last?  Our bags filled with biscuits, we headed back up the hill towards our guest house where we encountered another panicked crowd.  “WATER!  The river is overflowing!  RUN!”

Where to go?  To go high we had to cross the bridge, and we needed to get as high as we could if the rains were really coming… So we risked crossing the bridge at a full run, and proceeded directly to the guesthouse, packed valuables and a survival kit and hiked up to the highest point of Leh… Shanti Stupa.  The Buddhist temple was already packed with homeless refugees, both locals and tourists.  No one felt safe when more storms could be on the way.  The rains came that night and for a few hours, we jammed into a sheltered room, where the panic, worry and exhaustion gave way to moving magic of the faithful in prayer.  The old woman next to me began to lead the Buddhist chants, and soon the entire room was filled with prayers, and tears.  When the rain let up we moved outside to let others in.  The rains came again, and this time we found shelter under a table and some plastic.

There was to be no sleep that night.  Since the moment that I heard of the catastrophe, my only thought was that I had to help others.  I didn’t think to eat, sleep, or even worry for my own safety.  I couldn’t rest knowing there were others in need, that there could still be survivors, that there was still so much to be done.  Luckily my Swiss friend was a bit more level-headed than myself and kept reminding me of my own personal safety.  Perhaps it was thanks to her that I lived through the trials and tribulations of the days to come….

please stay tuned!

(If you want to help, please contact the / INTERNATIONAL FELLOWSHIP OF BUDDHIST YOUTH LADAKH (IFBYL) a non-profit organisation dedicated to immediate and long-term relief) See my Facebook note for details.  Photos will be posted when I can get out of Leh and into a non-satellite internet source. )

One Response to “The Flash Floods in Leh (Part 1)”
  1. Karey says:

    Girl, hang in there, sending you all the strength that I can muster… and respect you in so many ways!!!!! Karey

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