Of a deadly highway and decades-old trauma

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The arrival of the chilling winter in Kashmir also brings the only highway that connects the valley to the rest of the country in headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Considered as one of the most treacherous routes in the world, the Srinagar-Jammu highway has been carved out of the hard Pir Panjal mountain range. Cutting through the mountains, Jawahar Tunnel was carved in the 1950s. Today, it’s functioning determines whether the traffic will ply on the road or not.

The 300-kilometers long highway is considered as the lifeline for Kashmir’s over six million people. However, even before a sheet of snow surfaces in the region the highway calls it quits. Closure of this lifeline is not new to citizens of the valley.

Snowfall, landslides, flooding have, over the years, regularly shut down this vital link. In January this year, the road remained shut for traffic for ten consecutive days after a bridge caved in near Ramban.

Constructed originally in 1926 by the erstwhile Dogra ruler Hari Singh for him and the royal court’s travel to Jammu, the erstwhile state’s winter capital Srinagar-Jammu, the commuters dependent on the highway face issues that should have been erstwhile by now.

And this highway has a deadly past. In 2019, conflict-related violence in Kashmir killed 366 people whereas accidents on the highway claimed at least 447 lives. For many, this road has also been a cause of trauma and lifelong sense of loss, as the highway accounts for hundreds of road accidents every year. Among them is 45-year-old Syed Abid, a Srinagar resident who sells medicine in wholesale.

Every winter, Abid wishes to skip the daily updates about the highway from his routine. Although his business, which is dependent on the condition along the route, he is forced to find ways to cope up with it.

The trauma goes back three-decades ago. The January of 1992 was not only one of the harshest winter but full of miracles for then 17-year-old Abid.

On 5 January that year, Abid said, his two elder brothers left for New Delhi via the highway and “it started snowing in Srinagar”.

There weren’t any mobile phone services, and the family had no idea of this siblings’ whereabouts. “We were expecting a call from them that evening on our neighbour’s landline phone after they would make it to Jammu,” he said. However, that did not happen, and the family spent the night worrying about their siblings.

Next morning Abid left for the Tourist Reception Centre, Srinagar, and told his family that he was going to look for his brothers and in case anything untoward had happened he would end his life too. “I’m the youngest among my siblings, and my brothers treated me like their child,” said Abid, “so you can understand why I thought of ending my life.”

The officials at the TRC told him that they had no clue about the bus that his siblings were travelling in. He was asked to try his luck at a communication centre set up in Anantnag’s Bijbehara.

However, the journey ahead was anything but easy for the teenager, accompanied by a relative, Mir Muneeb, whose family travelled in the same bus.

The duo walked a long distance till Anantnag as they sought lift from strangers, Abid said, however, were met with disappointment: “we were told to move back and wait for the beacon to clear the road and get information on the plight of passengers.”

Abid decided otherwise and moved towards Jawahar tunnel, asking for lift from the government forces troopers. “We were not allowed to move ahead at the tunnel, but I pleaded before and were provided with much needed lift,” he recalled.

Across the tunnel, the snow had buried buses under it and it engulfed Abid under sorrow. “When I saw bodies and buses buried I had lost all the hope,” Abid said, with a heavy breath.

Abid was devastated when he saw the bodies of a neighbouring locality and his family. “He was a tall football player and when I saw his body my hopes were dented,” he recalled. “I asked myself if this tall person could not survive the snow fury, how would my brothers?” Near him, his son, with a packet of biscuit in hands, lay dead. “I can never forget that,” Abid added.

However, soon Abid saw one of his brothers walking, in Nowgam village, near Khooni Nalla — where the Syed and Mir families were stuck. “I can’t describe the emotions after having gone through so much during that journey. But I was happy that our families were safe,” he said. “We had asked them to return, however, they denied and as a sign of showing they were alive they sent their belongings for the families back home.”

Adding that he was also given letters by many of the stuck passengers for their families back in Srinagar. “Everyone had got to know that a few men from Srinagar had made it to Khooni Nalla in search of their family members,” Abid recalled, “I remember having shared a lot of letters in the downtown area from their beloved.”

It has been over 30 years, however, Abid struggles to get over the memory of the visuals. “I could not get the sight of dead bodies out of my head for a long time and it was after administering medicines for depression for a year I was relieved of the serious trauma,” he said.

Although Abid’s family was lucky enough to have their kin alive, thousands in Kashmir continue to suffer the loss on the deadly highway. Despite thousands of lives lost, there has been little significant upgrades in the infrastructure. It remains to be seen for how long will Kashmiris continue to suffer.

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