SRINAGAR, India — Many of the hungry who lined up for free rice Saturday had been trapped in their homes for days by the floods that have killed hundreds in India and Pakistan. They were finally emerging, dehydrated and weak, but ready for a fight.
At first the state workers unloaded the burlap sacks of rice with some order, but the delivery quickly descended into chaos. Men clambered up the side of the truck and began pulling out the sacks on their own. Elderly women kicked their way to the front. Fists flew.
“These floods have turned Kashmir back 40 years,” said Abdul Samad, 65, as he sat on a bridge atop of a rice sack as if it were a prize, his family on either side. Below, the floodwaters still churned with debris and the carcass of a cow.
“We’re hungry. We have nothing to eat,” said Samad, still sweating from the exertion. “That’s why I’m fighting for a sack of rice at my age.”
Instead of moving in to help keep order among the starving crowd, Indian army soldiers watched from a parapet next door, laughing and filming the scene on their smartphones.
A slow response by both state and national authorities to the worst flooding in Kashmir in decades has angered local residents and inflamed deep-seated resentments in this Muslim-
majority valley in the Himalayas, the subject of dispute between India and Pakistan for decades. Separatist sentiment remains strong in Kashmir, as many still see the Indian government as an occupying force.
Thus, after thousands of residents remained trapped on the top floors of their homes for days — waving from rooftops in scenes that evoked 2005’s Hurricane Katrina — many residents directed their ire against the Indian army. They have even pelted military rescue helicopters with stones.
A sign in downtown Srinagar Saturday read, “We don’t need Indian rescue and relief!” And many residents worried that the violence could worsen as relief efforts continue. The army has rescued 140,000 already, and thousands more are believed to be marooned throughout the state.
Along with the army, many targeted their frustrations at the state of Jammu and Kashmir, whose 44-year-old chief minister, Omar Abdullah, is the scion of a family that has been in charge for much of the state’s history. As the floodwaters began to rise rapidly and without warning in the capital Sunday, many VIPs — including an ambassador and a visiting golf team — were evacuated, while patients in one of the largest maternity hospitals were left to fend for themselves.
Early on, Abdullah, who was active on Twitter, advised residents to stay calm. “Please don’t panic, we will reach you, I promise,” he said in one tweet. But as the chaos grew, Abdullah disappeared from social media altogether. He later said that his government had tried to warn residents of the impending flood risk and said in a television interview that his administration had been AWOL because they, too, were caught in the rising tide.
“My secretariat, the police headquarters, the control room, fire services, hospitals, all the infrastructure was underwater,” he told the news channel NDTV.
“There was nobody to rescue us. Nobody came. There was no food, no water, nothing,” said Shazia Mir, a science teacher who was trapped on the top floor of her Srinagar home with her husband, two young children and six other family members for five days. They waved at the army helicopters that were airlifting others around them to safety, but nothing happened.
“We thought: We will die now,” she said. Her children were panicking and crying, she said, and there was nothing to be done but tell them: “Only God can save us. It’s in God’s hands now.”
Finally, volunteers picked them up in a rubber raft on Thursday.
Around Srinagar on Saturday, the water had begun to recede and some shops began to reopen, and the sound of pressure washers and power saws mingled with the sound of the helicopters still circling overhead. Everything was coated with a thick layer of grime, even the flowers in the city’s Mughal-era gardens.
Many neighborhoods in Srinagar remained well underwater amid fears that the death toll — around 200 — would rise. In one affluent neighborhood, men manning a homemade plank-and-foam raft took residents to see what was left to their homes — with one woman in a jeweled hijab wailing, “How can we come out of this misery?”
Trucks packed with volunteers passed through the streets throwing down watermelons, squash, apples and fresh water. In the absence of wide-ranging government help, Kashmiris — from local mosques, Sikh temples and community groups — have set up makeshift community kitchens and medical centers on their own.
A doctor at one of the clinics, Nazir Var, said that he was seeing patients who are just emerging from being trapped for up to nine days — suffering from dehydration, heat stroke and stomach maladies. Water-borne disease such as cholera are the new fear, he said.
Ahmed Hospital, a small, privately owned facility in Srinagar, was overwhelmed by donations from locals after it became a gathering point for the wounded after three of the city’s main hospitals were underwater. A triage unit was set up. Local mothers turned up to cook. Anonymous volunteers brought water and medicine — although some stocks are still growing low.
The hospital’s co-founder, Asif Khanday, has been sleeping on the floor of the triage unit with other volunteer doctors the past week, even as his own home remains inundated. He steals away for a few hours occasionally just to comfort his distraught wife.
“We don’t know how it started,” Khanday said of the crowd of patients and help. “And now we don’t know how it’s going to end.”
Jalees Andrabi contributed to this report.