Nine days in a drowning city: A first-hand account of Assam floods

The news was ominous. The Berenga Bethukandi embankment had been breached and the Barak river was now gushing through the city.

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A woman at her flooded house in Karimganj district

By 3 pm, our neighbourhood was completely submerged. We were not safe even in our first-floor apartment. The water had risen up to our chest. It was still rising.

Electricity was gone. It was risky to stay at home.

Washed away

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Washed away

My parents and I grabbed a change of clothes, a few candles, some mosquito repellents, paper plates and plastic cups, packed two bags, and left our house. It happened so quickly; there was no time to take anything else.

We knew there would be no one to help us that Monday. A little distance from our home, we saw a school that had been turned into a relief camp being washed away by the raging current. Those who had already left their homes to escape the flood were now fleeing this camp once again.

A woman fills drinking water from a tube well in Barsimolua village of Nalbari district

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A woman fills drinking water from a tube well in Barsimolua village of Nalbari district

Around 7 pm, we found shelter with a family of four that was living on slightly elevated ground. They took us in for the night.

The next morning, a team of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) rescued us in a boat and within an hour, we were dropped off at a camp.

The camp appeared to be a refurbished government building, perhaps a school, and had two floors with four rooms in all. We were forbidden to take pictures.

Our family of three took the first floor. Within a few hours, another family of three – Bijon Saha, a vegetable vendor, his wife and their school-going daughter – joined us. They, too, had been rescued by the NDRF.

villagers take shelter near a railway track in Bajali district

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villagers take shelter near a railway track in Bajali district

Downstairs, an elderly couple was struggling, without their children. Their son was abroad and their daughter was living in another city, while this part of Assam had become inaccessible. The couple had no way of receiving any help, much like the rest of us. By the end of the day, we were around 16-18 people in one shelter, anxiously waiting for the floods to retreat.

The first day at the camp was the worst—the government was still rescuing people across the state and hadn’t yet found the time to put together a package for relief and essentials. So, there was no question of getting even the basic amenities.

There was flood water all around, but no drinking water or any other source of clean water. Some people collected flood water, dunked water purification tablets into it, hoped they would work, and drank it. There was no other choice.

An NDRF boat reached us early the next morning with water supplies. Each person in the camp was given a bottle of water and a packet of biscuits. Since then, for the last eight days, each morning a boat comes up to the camp. A worker shouts, “Relief!” All of us queue up and either an NGO worker or the NDRF personnel hand out a bottle of water and a packet of biscuits to each person. Last Thursday, we saw the chief minister on a boat near our camp, talking to the stranded people and other government workers. The state promised us more assistance.

Two of my neighbours were at a different camp 30 minutes away. Last week, I waded through the waters to see them. One of them is a medical sales representative, while the other owns a shop that sells 5-10 litre water containers. His shop is now inundated and he has had to struggle for water for himself.

Some families at our camp had procured a stove and a gas cylinder to cook food. Supplies were not easy to get, however. We have been buying our food from a vendor nearby. Till Thursday, the waters were rising and the currents were strong. Unfortunately, I cannot swim. I would hold on to Bijon, with whom by now I had struck a friendship, and together we would wade through the flood waters to the shop to buy food. Roti and subzi, 10 a plate. This went on for a few days—till a few NGOs became aware of our location. On Monday, for the first time, one of them sent us hot khichdi to eat.

Many of us were running out of cash. Even the banks and ATM machines are flooded and cannot be accessed. In the camp, surrounded by flood water that is receding at a slow pace, we are marooned in more ways than one. The NDRF gave us portable batteries to charge our phones. But the phone and internet network is patchy across the state, and it is hard to connect with anyone.

A few days ago, I walked an hour to reach another camp to get a sense of how others were doing. It was the same everywhere. People were struggling.

“As there was no network, we had no way to contact our relatives, friends, for help. As the ATMs were inundated, there was a cash crunch across the town. We had to manage either with the cash in stock or borrow from someone, as the online payment was completely disrupted,” said Rajat Purkayastha, who has a stationery shop in Central Road area.

One of my neighbours, Palak Bijoy Dutta, a senior citizen, managed to take shelter with one of his relatives. “I have never seen such floods at least in the last 30 years. The unprecedented rain followed by the embankment breach did not give people much time to shift their belongings,” Dutta, who has lived in Assam all his life, said. On June 20, the swift currents had left neighbourhoods inundated within hours; in some places, the water had reached the second floor of houses.

Even those who are not directly impacted by the floods are struggling with basic amenities. Kshema Sundar Deb Choudhury, a retired water resources engineer at the Silchar water department, said there was a shortage of supplies everywhere and that the situation is unprecedented. “People were buying cooking gas at double the price ( 2,000 a cylinder) due to the flood-triggered crisis. We had been provided with water, biscuits, milk, candles by government agencies, NGOs and other organizations,” said Choudhury.

It’s been nine days now since we have left our homes. Some areas are still under neck-deep water. Some of my neighbours and I try to walk up to our neighbourhood each day to see if the waters have ebbed. So far, we have not been able to reach our homes, as they are still submerged.

We are hoping the waters will retreat this Thursday or Friday so that we can assess the damage to our belongings. Our work to recover our lives will begin then.

(Shubhobrota Dev Roy is a copy editor with VCCircle, an HT Media company.)

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