I was about to leave to my office, when my friend Naseef called me. “It is urgent. Get to Masjid al Noor, Illath Lane. The water level is rising in Paravoor... Kauyyum Kolliyil just called me.” Kolliyil is area coordinator at a non-governmental organisation (NGO).
Somehow, I managed to get there in 10 minutes. When I reached, there were four people – Kolliyil, Naseef, Firose and Jalal. We took the ambulance belonging to Thanal Palliative Care.
In 20 minutes, we reached the coordination camp in Mannam, near Paravoor in Ernakulam district.
There were more than 40 people. We then divided into two groups of 20 each to rescue the people in Chalakkal area.
However, there were a number of hurdles on our way. The first being transportation – four-wheelers or small vehicles couldn’t have passed because the water level was up to our knees and was worsening.
We managed to get some pick-up trucks, locally called ‘tipper lorry’. As we approached the rescue area, there were three army vehicles, two trucks, and another huge vehicle (name of which I may unaware of), with a machinery attached to it.
The army drivers, we met on our way, said, “The water is now up to the exhaust of the vehicle. If we go further, water will reach the exhaust of the vehicles, and the entire rescue mission will become tedious.
Basheer, our driver, decided to go further. Once we reached, we quickly geared up and left for the waters.
Most of the families stuck there, about 150 of them, did not want to leave their houses. They were willing to stay on their terraces, if the need occurred.
Eventually, after a lot of reasoning, such as staying on the terrace will increase the chance of being isolated, strong current in the river, walking through knee-deep water would become harder, etc., our team members rescued those were willing to leave their houses.
Meanwhile, I continued to convince more people. There was an old lady, unable to walk in a nearby house.
The daughter-in law informed that the old lady did not want to leave. She was vehement about leaving with her son, if not, then moving to the terrace.
When I asked her, she said, “He had gone to bring back the cows.” I told my team to help her get out of the house. After a lot of convincing, she finally agreed. The water was already up to my thighs.
After taking her back to the truck, we came back. This time, most of them were cooperating with us.
A woman was stuck, but was hesitant to ask for help, when I asked her to come along, she said that she had to milk her cow.
I replied, “Water is up to our thighs and you want to milk the cow. Aunty, first your life, then your cow.”
We filled the trucks to its capacity and rushed to the nearest relief camp. We worked as a shuttle service, but every time we returned, the water level had increased a foot.
Discrimination During The Floods
Even during such adverse conditions, people did not shy away from showing their true colours.
An instance of discrimination I witnessed was when a ward member from Kunnukara refused to accommodate the rescued people.
We had rescued some non-Keralites (Bengalis, Assamese), along with some local people. The member refused to accommodate them, because they were not from his ward.
On further enquiry, he said, “He won't let us to accommodate non-Keralites in their camp. So, we need to get them somewhere else.”
In another instance, a middle-aged woman tried to block the roads by putting big rocks and branches. She did not want her house to be affected by the passing of the rescue vehicles.
The next day, the rescue mission was taken over by the fishermen, along with Army, IRW and other rescue teams.
Therefore, I decided to visit the relief camps in my locality, Vypeen. The area was less-affected and considered safe during the initial days. This was because, being on the coastal side, it had few road routes open for transportation.
Geologically, Vypeen is an island. It has Arabian Sea on one side, Veeran river and a stream of Vembanad lake on another.
On the other side, there were two ports – Vypeen and Munambam; both being estuaries. More than 10 canals pass through the island.
When the water from the Periyar river reached Veeranpuzha, the water level rose in the river and the canals.
But, when it was high tide, the situation worsened. Water levels increased on both the coastal side and river side of the canals. So, every school auditoriums and village office became a relief camp in Vypeen.
Vypeen is the most densely-populated island in Asia. While I was volunteering in a HIHSS relief camp, I saw people lose everything, but their lives. But they lived like families in those camps.
Inside Relief Camps
Relief camps have a lull of morbidity attached to it. But the coordinators and volunteers tried to cheer the people.
Interestingly, the lady, who became viral over social media, said the same thing, “Beyond race, tone, religion, cast, politics, we ate from single plate. We consoled each other, we made each other happy... We have lost everything, but we were happy.”
Sheri Wahab (ward member, Edavanakkad village), Manaf Manezhath (block member), Yousuf Kalappurackal, Nasar CK, among others, worked in tandem in the HIHSS camps.
Kalappurackal contacted nearby camps to know whether they needed something or if had anything to donate.
Keralites, usually known for their social media trolls used social media as a tool to help rescue operations.
People used social media to coordinate the rescue missions and update the traffic status for transportation.
Also, volunteers and other people kept a stock of things, which were not available such as food, dress and sanitary napkins.
Kozhikode district collector broke down while mentioning about the reaction of the people in his Facebook post.
He had posted a request for providing drinking water and food to Thrissur district, hoping he would arrange a truck by the evening.
Unbelievably, within three hours of the post, he got four trucks ready. Food and water continued to come in from every corner.
During the fourth day, I was assigned a rescue mission in Kottayil Kovilakom, Paravur. However, the stories of and from Paravur are yet to be spoken about.
However, Paravur was badly hit by the floods as Chengannur. But, Chengannur got more media space in television channels and newspapers.
When I reached for the rescue mission, the water level was 13 feet. We used trucks to move people. We took them till a point we could and then used our rescue boats to reach isolated houses and areas.
Stories of people and their love of liquor, especially toddy, is well known in Kerala.
When our rescue boat reached one of the houses, we met two middle-aged people and asked us to wait for five minutes, as they wanted to finish their drinks.
But, the hero of day was Jaisal KP, a 32-year-old fisherman from Tanur, Malappuram district. He laid out his back for people to set as pedestal to get into the boats.
For us, these were the days of realisation - of ourselves, our capabilities, and humanity.
Simply put, people who were unaware of sanitary napkins or did not take the issue of female reproductive system seriously, realised the importance of it.
They rushed all across districts and collected napkins. They bought it, loaded it on their heads and transported them to the camps.
The fishermen were the unsung heroes and their roles will be unforgettable. They came, rescued more than 30,000 people and left without expecting a thank you.
Talk about humanity in a world deprived of one. Truck owners’ association also gave their trucks for free of cost.
Now, as the water recedes and normalcy returns, the state knows that it has come out of one of the worst natural calamities it has witnessed.
The road to recovery is long, yet we will stand up, we shall overcome and we will build our Kerala back.
(As told to Salmanul Farisy)