Desolation in snow: Fires that destroyed homes and hopes

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Guddy bathed her paralysed husband, Amin Dar, and washed him after the toilet for the last twenty-five years. After dinner, she remembered Amin’s daily mandatory medication. “They were inseparable,” a neighbour said of the couple.

When a massive fire broke out at their residence in Srinagar’s Fateh Kadal neighbourhood on 15 January, Dar couldn’t move from his bed. “It was just 8:15 pm and the power [electricity] had just been restored after a routine powercut,” he recalled. At least five neighbors rushed into the house to bring out Dar. Guddy didn’t know that. 

Shouting his name, she rushed to the top floor of the three-storey house to secure Dar’s expensive medicines that the family would have a hard time buying again. As she looked around for him, the fire engulfed the house. It was too late to walk down the stairs. Instead, she ran towards the window.

When she stared at the ground from the third-floor, the people shouted at her to jump and save her life, eye-witnesses said. She did.

She survived after an immediate surgery, at Bone and Joint Hospital in the city, which can disable her for life. The family of five was made homeless in the fire. Walking on the charred remnants, their eldest son said, “Fire started from a blower [a heating appliance] after power was restored. That’s all we know.”

The Dar family wasn’t alone. In the fire on 15 January, five more families were rendered homeless — in the cold and midst of a pandemic. 

As Guddy undergoes treatment in the hospital, Dar sits draped in a corner of a dark shack, provided by the local mosque authorities. The cold, and sound of icicles dropping on the street, spear the torn blankets hanging on the windows to make Dar shiver.

“She was there for the last twenty-five years,” he said. “Now, I’m here and she is there. All my family is left with are the things we are wearing right now.”

Seasonal problem?

Every winter, fire incidents rise in the Kashmir valley as voltage fluctuations trigger the use of heavy heating appliances. 

This season, Srinagar alone lost twenty-three structures to eight other fire incidents at Gandarpora, Nawakadal, Zadibal, Alochibagh, Habbakadal, Wattalkadal, Nadpora, Chanpora, and Panthachowk. At least forty-four families were affected by these incidents.

The Srinagar district administration has so far provided assistance with 175 mattresses, 180 blankets, 200 bed sheets apart from kitchen sets and other household items. Following an official assessment of losses in these incidents, the office of Shahid Chowdhary, Deputy Commissioner of Srinagar, sanctioned an assistance of 30 lakh rupees. 

“The amount includes 1 lakh rupees each for the restoration of damaged structures, 3000-4000 rupees assistance for kitchen items, 5000 cash assistance rupees, 10000-15000 rupees each for subsistence expenses in view of the harsh weather conditions,” his office mentioned in a press release.

Bashir Ahmad Shah, the command officer of fire and emergency services in five districts including Srinagar, told The Kashmir Walla that as per the department’s analysis “there aren’t more fire incidents in winter if we compare to the average of other seasons. It is almost similar.”

However, as per the last data available on the department’s website that details the fire incidents of 2016, the winter months accounted for nearly 2000 incidents while summer months recorded 1,012 cases. 

Shah said that the magnitude of damage of any fire incident in winter is more. “People leave heating arrangements switched on during the night, either gas-based or electricity-based, that becomes a major reason for fire,” he said. “Since people are sleeping, they don’t come to know about the fire until it engulfs the whole house.” 

Another reason for more damage is the congestion in the residential structures, he said.

“There are no fire gaps and the fire spreads,” he said. Similarly, in the Fateh Kadal fire, the house adjacent to the Dar family was damaged too, rendered inhabitable.

In the winter season, one of the well-established reasons for fire incidents is voltage fluctuation. “During nights, when other appliances are switched off, the voltage flow is higher and that heats up the heating appliance,” Shah explained. “The cables, which are in a dilapidated condition, may get damaged and that leads to a short circuit.”

“Scared to enter our own home”

Kashmir fire, fire in srinagar, Srinagar fire
“We are scared to enter our own home now,” said Bano. “Last time, I entered this room, a wooden log fell over me.” Photograph by Yashraj Sharma for The Kashmir Walla.

It has been more than two weeks since the fire, and unlike Dar, other families are still struggling to find a bed to sleep on. One such is the family of Sumaira Bano, who lived in the same house as the Dar family.

Her family of four was financially battered after her husband, Bilal Ahmad Dar, was locked up under Public Safety Act in August 2019 clampdown for about a year. After his time in Central Jail in Srinagar, Dar struggled to find a job for a living. 

He had just found a gig as a laborer for 300 rupees a day. “It was just a hand to mouth situation,” he said. “I was not even thinking about savings right now.”

On 15 January, Bano’s family was sitting in a lamplight, preparing for dinner on the ground floor, when the electricity was restored. Fifteen minutes later, they heard screams from outside, “There’s fire. Fire!” Without picking up anything, the family ran for life. 

Standing outside amid frozen snow, the family saw everything burnt to ashes within forty-five minutes. “Clothes of my children, food for them — everything,” said Bilal, a few days later. “We lost everything.”

To Bilal, this house was more than just home. He had seen his father, self, then his children growing up. On the corner of his room, on the ground floor, was where his mother bathed him, along with four siblings, in a tub. “This house has many memories,” he said, in desolation, “many!”

“We stayed out for a week in the cold and next to no food,” said Bano, holding her 3-year-old daughter, Aisha, in arms. At nights, the neighbours will take them in to beat the cold. The house’s structure is still standing, but on charred pillars. The district authorities have asked the families to stay away from the burnt structure.

In the muddied slush, Bano also lost a precious box in which she had been saving for Aisha’s future since her birth. She doesn’t know the exact amount she had saved for three years but she had “thought of financing her education and maybe buy her gold someday from that money,” said Bano. Though it burnt, Aisha still recognises the charred box as hers.

“We had to leave my son at a relative’s place. We are scared to enter our own home now,” said Bano. “Last time, I entered this room, a wooden log fell over me.” She wasn’t hurt though.

The families from this locality approached their masjid for help. “They agreed and issued a letterhead. They have taken responsibility for raising his house again,” said Bano, “but till then, we will have to look after our own food and residence.” 

The spirit of Kashmir, when it comes to financially uplift an affected family, is tried and tested. And the families in Fateh Kadal are counting on it. As she picked up the torn, muddied clothes of her toddler daughter from the debris, she looked at the walls of her kitchen, and said, “This is all we had. I’m not sure how we are going to survive now.”

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