News / Asia

Indian Relatives Continue Search for Missing After 'Himalayan Tsunami'

Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel search for flood victims in a damaged house in Uttarkashi in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, June 26, 2013.
Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel search for flood victims in a damaged house in Uttarkashi in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, June 26, 2013.
Reuters
The pilgrims came seeking salvation and a place in heaven, but now their faces stare from banners and tatty flyers tacked to  gates and walls of Indian villages and hill-towns.

Some are children, smiling as they pose between parents; others are elderly couples standing side-by-side looking into the camera. Many posters show groups from the same family and some offer rewards of up to 200,000 rupees ($3,340).

All carry the names of those pictured and a telephone number. All have one word in common: “Missing.”

A month ago, India's Himalayan region of Uttarakhand was lashed by its heaviest rainfall on record, causing glacier lakes and rivers to burst their banks and inundate towns and villages.

Now authorities say there is little hope of finding alive the 5,748 people declared to be missing from the disaster, making it the deadliest ever in the mountainous region.

“Three generations of my family were there. What am I going to do now?” asked P.C. Kabra, a middle-aged civil servant searching for any sign of 15 relatives at the main police station in the hill-town of Dehradun.

Kabra, from the city of Lucknow, told how he lost contact with his family, including his mother, two brothers, sisters, their spouses and children, when the floods struck the Kedarnath Valley at the heart of the disaster.

“I last spoke to my elder brother on June 17 at 6 o'clock in the morning. He called me and was screaming, 'There is water everywhere. We are in danger, please help us,'” said Kabra, who has been hoping against hope as he scours the area's hospitals.

“The phone disconnected after that and I haven't been able to get through since then,” he said, lifting black-rimmed glasses to wipe away tears.

The disaster affected not just inhabitants, but also the tens of thousands of devotees who flock each year on a pilgrimage to the temple towns of Kedarnath, Gangotri, Badrinath and Yamunotri.

Authorities say a significant percentage of the missing were pilgrims, like Kabra's relatives, who came from other parts of India. Many pilgrims and residents were stranded for days, but military rescuers pulled more than 100,000 of them to safety.

The flash floods and landslides washed away or damaged 5,000 roads, 200 bridges and innumerable buildings on river banks. But with many roads still blocked, some areas are only reachable by air.

The calamity was a “Himalayan tsunami” that brought death and destruction to a rugged terrain sprawling over 37,000 square kilomters, said Vijay Bahuguna, chief minister of the state of Uttarakhand that suffered the brunt.

“We are not getting into the controversy whether the missing persons are dead or not,” said Bahuguna. “We are abiding by what the families of the victims say, and if they think that they haven't come back and have no hope as well, [then] we are providing them monetary relief.”

Without a body, Indian law does not allow a person to be declared dead until seven years have elapsed, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a weekend interview.

Even so, the death toll is likely to be too low, say aid workers and people living in the disaster zone. They say more than 10,000 people were in the area when the floods struck.

'Wild forests'

Air force pilots, who were operating more than 40 helicopters at the peak of the search, have had to negotiate narrow valleys, sometimes flanked with dense forest, and unpredictable mountain weather. Two helicopters have crashed during the rescue and 20 servicemen killed.

While Bahuguna said it was still possible some of the injured had taken refuge in mountain villages cut off from  telecommunications, air force officials did not think that was likely.

“Even if people had managed to climb up the mountains to avoid the deluge, there is no way they could have survived in these wild forests for a month,” said Air Commodore Rajesh Isser, who is heading air force operations.

Government officials say most deaths occurred in the narrow, 14-kilometer Kedarnath Valley, with its temple town dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, whose role is to destroy the universe in order to re-create it.

At the time of the disaster, officials say there were about  5,000 registered inhabitants. But there are no records of the number of pilgrims and migrant workers, many from Nepal, who work in hotels, restaurants and as porters in the region.

The area remains accessible only by helicopters that have been flying in paramilitary and army personnel, medical experts and other officials trying to locate, identify and dispose of decomposing corpses buried in mounds of sludge.

Doctors have been photographing bodies, collecting any documents or personal possessions which can be used to identify them, and taking DNA samples.

The final figures of the dead may never be known, however, with many bodies believed to have been carried away by the torrents and buried deep in mud and sludge.

Some relatives grieve that this will leave them no chance of performing last rites for their loved ones. The 500,000 rupees [$8,347] compensation from the government is scant comfort.

“The money is not important,” said Kabra. “It's hard to accept that my relatives will be presumed dead. Whatever the government says, I will keep looking for them. I have to have hope, otherwise I have nothing.”

You May Like

How to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

Obesity Poses Complex Problem

Professor warns of obesity’s worldwide health impact More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam Wari
X
Katherine Gypson
May 25, 2015 1:32 AM
For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.
Video

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.
Video

Video Scientists Testing Space Propulsion by Light

Can the sun - the heart of our solar system - power a spacecraft to the edge of our solar system? The answer may come from a just-launched small satellite designed to test the efficiency of solar sail propulsion. Once deployed, its large sail will catch the so-called solar wind and slowly reach what scientists hope to be substantial speed. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video FIFA Trains Somali Referees

As stability returns to the once lawless nation of Somalia, the world football governing body, FIFA, is helping to rebuild the country’s sport sector by training referees as well as its young footballers. Abdulaziz Billow has more from Mogadishu.
Video

Video With US Child Obesity Rates on the Rise, Program Promotes Health Eating

In its fifth year, FoodCorps puts more than 180 young Americans into 500 schools across the United States, where they focus on teaching students about nutrition, engaging them with hands-on activities, and improving their access to healthy foods whether in the cafeteria or the greater community. Aru Pande has more.
Video

Video Virginia Neighborhood Draws People to Nostalgic Main Street

In the U.S., people used to grow up in small towns with a main street lined by family-owned shops and restaurants. Today, however, many main streets are worn down and empty because shoppers have been lured away by shopping malls. But in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, main street is thriving. VOA’s Deborah Block reports it has a nostalgic feel with its small restaurants and unique stores.

VOA Blogs