“Even if I die, I’ll bring them back”: Forest guard’s rescue operation in Zabarwan hills

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Srinagar: It was about 9 pm and Ghulam Ahmed Bhat had rinsed his hands to sit for dinner when two young men from the neighbourhood knocked on the door of his mud-house in Nishat, Srinagar. “Numerous boys have lost their way in the forest [in Zabarwan hills],” one of them told Mr. Bhat. “You are the expert around here. Can you please help?”

Neither there was time for a second thought nor Mr. Bhat had one. He put on his shoes and left the home with his nephew with a torch and a bottle of water. “Even if I die, I’ll bring them back,” he had told at his home.

But that hasn’t been his way of life. Forty-seven-year-old Mr. Bhat is a forest guard, stationed in Khanmoh forests and had almost never done a rescue operation before. However, he was born and brought up in the woods; he knew every nook and corner of the forest.

And there was more to his drive and passion to save the group. From childhood, he saw his father, also a forest guard, meeting ends because of the wildlife; now, he is raising his children because of the forests and “I won’t let anyone die in this forest.”

Mr. Bhat established contact with the group, who had gone for a trekking in the forests as per Mr. Bhat, through a phone-call and asked them to flash their torches. “When I saw their torch the first time, I knew the young boys were in grave danger.”

He says that the group of nine boys had lost their way in the forests and were on the edge of a dangerous stream. “I just told them to not move downwards,” he says, “if you move, you die. Wait for my instructions.”

Nearly by midnight, Mr. Bhat was on the top of the mountain – about 2,700 meters above the ground. He flashed his torch for long and asked the group to do the same. After a few minutes, Mr. Bhat located them. “It was too dark and I asked them to wait till the light comes up,” he recounts.

At about 5:30 am, on the directions of Mr. Bhat, the group of the students started trekking towards the top. When the group reached him, many among them broke down. They thought, as Mr. Bhat says, they wouldn’t survive.

“One of them lay down and said, ‘You are my Allah!’” The soft-spoken Mr. Bhat shies away from the phrase. He says he is no God. “But I felt nice,” says Mr. Bhat. “I just hope their well-wishes reach my father and he feels proud of me from heaven.”

Mr. Bhat was out of water and so was the group. He melted snow and gave them water to drink. After resting for a couple of minutes, he started trekking down and reached the lower part by 9 am.

“The rescue team was waiting for us in the lower reaches,” he says. “Everyone was happy to see the group alive and safe. The rescue team clicked photographs with them.” And Mr. Bhat stayed away from these flashes.

He thinks of himself as a small-time worker of nature and “if the group remembers his efforts, that’s enough. If the rescue team doesn’t give me the due credit, it won’t matter.”

Later, the group was handed over to Nishat Police Station by the team of Altaf Hussain, Wildlife Warden Central Division Srinagar.

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