Volunteers Keep Digging For Kashmir Snow Victims, Hope Fades For Survivors
24 February 2005
Waltengu: Volunteers using only farm tools and bare hands kept digging frantically Thursday for victims of avalanches that have killed at least 231 people in Indian Kashmir since the weekend, but hopes faded of finding anyone alive. The rescue efforts came as Islamic militants staged a suicide attack on a government building in the main city Srinagar, shattering the peace that reigned since heavy snow brought the revolt-hit state to a halt at the weekend. About 250 civilians were briefly trapped in the building. Police evacuated the people before killing the two rebels. Two policemen and a civilian also died in the firing. More snow fell in parts of southern Kashmir, where massive walls of snow slammed into six villages at the weekend, sparking warnings of fresh avalanches. Villagers in the area inhabited mainly by poor shepherds and their families said several hundred people were still missing in what the army has called an 'unprecedented crisis'. Sub-zero temperatures claimed three more lives overnight Wednesday in central Kashmir. 'We wouldn't like to guess how many people are still buried under the snow,' said army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel V.K. Batra. Mainly Muslim Kashmir has a massive army presence as the Indian government tries to suppress a 15-year-old Islamic revolt against its rule. 'We're losing hope of finding anyone alive,' volunteer rescue worker Mohammed Maqbool said by telephone from Qazigund, near the worst-hit community of Waltingo in the Himalayan foothills. Qazigund lies 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Srinagar. Rescuers dug out two more bodies, bringing the avalanche death toll to 231. A police spokesman in Anantnag district, where Waltingo is located, said 1,200 residential and other buildings had been flattened by the snowslides. Authorities were on alert for new snowslides in the avalanche-hit districts of Anantnag, Doda and Poonch. 'It has been snowing again... and there's a possibility of fresh avalanches,' said police officer Ghulam Nabi Wadoo. He said the army had stopped clearing snow from Kashmir's main highway for fear of avalanches. Earlier in the week India's Major General Raj Mehta urged people in the most mountainous areas to flee their homes 'before they were overtaken by tragedy'. Villagers in Waltingo were still awaiting help from the army which had promised snowmobiles and other equipment. 'Let's forget snowmobiles. We're digging through the snow with our farming tools,' Nazir Ahmed, another volunteer, said. Others were using their hands to dig. Tempers were rising over lack of assistance. Villagers hooted in derision when the state's ruling Peoples Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti visited Waltingo Wednesday with blankets but no shovels. Batra said rescue equipment 'should be arriving very soon. The army will be air-dropping 2,000 shovels and 2,000 axes in the affected areas.' Doctors said chances of finding survivors under the snow were scant. Waltingo, which was home to about 740 people, was carpeted by snow which was pockmarked by heaps of rubble where survivors had dug for relatives. 'There's snow everywhere and very few survivors can actually identify the places where there were houses and hutments before the snowslides,' said Maqbool, who along with 200 volunteers, had trudged to Waltingo daily. Rows of corpses wrapped in white shrouds lay on the ground in the village. With the earth frozen, rescuers were placing bodies - women separately from men - inside collapsed timber-and-thatched roof buildings and marking the spot with a big log to identify them as burial sites. Village heads said concrete would be poured over the grave sites when snows melt. In central Budgham district, three family members died of cold overnight, police said. In the past two weeks, 262 people have died in avalanches, landslides and other cold weather-related accidents in the state, which has been blanketed by the heaviest snowfall in two decades.