Missing haunt flood-hit Ladakh

Missing haunt flood-hit Ladakh

Choglamsar: In the flood-hit northern Indian region of Ladakh, the search for survivors has come to an end, leaving families and communities to focus on rebuilding shattered homes and lives.

In a month of severe weather for parts of Asia, the disaster in Ladakh has been overshadowed by more deadly floods in Pakistan and China, where 1,384 people and 1,254 respectively have been confirmed dead by local authorities.

But the damage and anguish is widespread in the mountainous Buddhist region after the worst flash floods in 50 years earlier this month. A total of 189 deaths have been recorded and another 400 people are missing.

In the sludge and rubble of the district of Choglamsar, where a swollen local river burst its banks and buried the village of Tashi Gyatsal, the missing haunt the ruins of local houses and shops.

About a hundred homes were engulfed, with many unable to flee in time when the torrent of mud and debris swept through in the middle of the night.

Here and there, the potent smell of death lingers, while teddy bears, mattresses and the contents of abandoned suitcases are strewn in dirty piles where there were once streets.

The ground has risen several metres, meaning those buildings that are still standing look as if they have sunk into the mud. The vague outline of a buried row of shops can be discerned, as can a parked car.

Tsering Palmo, 35, lost her husband, her brother and her children but only two bodies have been found.

The search for survivors has now been called off, an army officer said on condition of anonymity.

Palmo, in a reminder of the overwhelmingly Buddhist character of the Ladakh region, burns incense for her missing loved ones and refuses to leave the area.

“It helps the dead a lot," she says. “The smoke helps their souls."

At the local school, only the roof is visible, but children are playing among the rubble.

A young man of 17 comes forward, limping badly and using a ski pole as a crutch. His lower leg is heavily bandaged.

“I was sleeping in my room when I was awoken by the storm," Ranchen Nurboo told AFP. “I got out by the window but I was carried away by the water and I broke my leg."

Heavy rainfall is rare in Ladakh. The downpour was so strong that it triggered cascades of water and rock down the sides of the mountains and into the valleys, where the flow grew more intense — and more deadly.

The floods washed away large sections of road — including major highways — in the area, leaving many tour groups stranded and needing rescue by the Indian army, which has a strong presence near Ladakh’s border with China.

Thousands of visitors from India and elsewhere travel to Ladakh each year during July and August for trekking and rafting expeditions and to experience the area’s ancient Buddhist culture.

“What happened is our karma," explained 32-year-old teacher Stanzin, who is living with three other families in tents that have been distributed by the army.

“A lot of people blame God, but in Buddhism we are responsible for the bad we have done in previous lives."

He said the floods were nothing compared with the disasters in Pakistan and China. “We need to stay positive," he said.

Help is on hand and the area had a high-profile visit from one of India’s top political figures on Monday, 40-year-old Rahul Gandhi, tipped as a future prime minister.

“I came here to help," he said, wearing his trademark immaculate white tunic.