DEHRADUN (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Their faces stare out from an array of tattered posters plastered to the gates of Jolly Grant airport.
Some are of smiling children posing in between their parents; others show elderly couples, standing side-by-side, looking intensely into the camera lens. Many posters show a collection of pictures of people, all belonging to the same family.
There are huge, glossy banners printed in colour offering handsome rewards of up to 200,000 rupees ($3,340) and others that are much smaller, handwritten and in black and white.
Along with the names of those pictured and a phone number, the same word is written next to all of the photos: “Missing”.
One month since the heaviest rainfall on record lashed India’s Himalayan region of Uttarakhand, forcing glacier lakes and rivers to overflow and inundate towns and villages, authorities say the 5,748 people registered as missing are now “presumed dead” – making the disaster the deadliest ever in the Himalayas.
“This calamity, which I call a Himalayan tsunami, affected about 37,000 sq. km of area and has caused many deaths,” Uttarakhand’s Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview at the weekend. “As of July 15, we’ve decided to declare all those that are missing as presumed dead.”
“We can’t give them death certificates as according to Indian law, if a body is not found, a person is deemed to be still living for seven years. However, for the purposes of paying compensation, we’ll treat the missing persons as perhaps dead. But we will continue to look for them,” he added.
But even the staggering death toll is an under-estimation, say aid workers and people local to the disaster zone, who claim more than 10,000 people were in the area at the time the calamity struck.
The disaster, in one of the holiest places in the world for Hindus, not only affected the local inhabitants. It also hit tens of thousands of devotees who flock to the area every year for the Char Dham Yatra – a popular pilgrimage route consisting of the four temple towns of Kedarnath, Gangotri, Badrinath and Yamunotri.
Authorities say a significant number of the missing are from other parts of India. They were in the area for the pilgrimage, which is seen by Hindus as a guarantee of breaking the cycle of life and death through reincarnation, achieving salvation and securing a place in heaven.
Some pilgrims were lucky. The Indian air force, army and other service personnel rescued over 100,000 pilgrims, many of whom had been stranded for three or four days along the pilgrimage route due to floods and landslides that damaged 5,000 roads and 200 bridges.
But while many have now returned home safely, the painful search for the thousands of missing continues for many families who refuse to give up hope.
In a large hall in Dehradun’s main police station, desperate relatives trickle in clutching photographs of their missing loved ones, their eyes bloodshot from a lack of sleep, their grief uncontrollable.
P.C. Kabra, a middle-aged civil servant, sits in front of a makeshift desk. Two police officers sit on the other side, listening calmly as Kabra tells how 15 members of his family – including his mother, two brothers, sisters, their spouses and children – who were in Kedarnath Valley, at the epicentre of the disaster, have not returned home one month on.
“I last spoke to my elder brother on June 17 at six o’clock in the morning. He called me from Bhairabnath temple in Kedarnath Valley and he was screaming, ‘there is water everywhere. We are in danger, please help us!’” said Kabra, who travelled here from the city of Lucknow, some 550 km away, and has been going from one hospital to another looking for his family.
“The phone disconnected after that and I haven’t been able to get through since then,” he added, lifting his thick, black-rimmed glasses to wipe away tears that start to trickle down his face. “Three generations of my family were there. What am I going to do now?”
The search for the missing has been a challenging task in this mountainous region. The numerous landslides caused by the rains have blocked roads and many areas are only accessible by air.
Air force pilots, who were operating more than 40 helicopters at the peak of the search and rescue phase, have had to navigate narrow valleys, sometimes only 20 metres wide, dense forest coverage and heavy and unpredictable rains. Two choppers have crashed during the operation and 20 service men have been killed, highlighting the treacherous conditions.
While Chief Minister Bahugana says it is still possible some injured survivors may have taken refuge in remote mountain villages where telecommunications are down, Indian air force officers say that is incredibly unlikely.
“The Himalayas is undoubtedly the most challenging terrain in the world. These villages and towns are surrounded by forests and 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,” says Air Commodore Rajesh Isser, who is heading the Indian air forces' operations in the aftermath of the disaster.
“Many of the people we rescued have broken bones, fractures and head injuries, so can you imagine these people surviving in heavy rains with no shelter, food and water for a month?”
VALLEY OF DEATH
Government officials say most of the deaths occurred in the Kedarnath Valley – a narrow valley stretching for 14 kilometres – where pilgrims visit the temple town of Kedarnath dedicated to the Hindu god Lord Shiva whose role, ironically, is to destroy the universe in order to re-create it.
At the time of the disaster, officials say there were around 5,000 local inhabitants there. But there are no records of how many pilgrims and migrant workers were present as they are not registered in the region. Many were from Nepal, working in hotels, restaurants and as porters.
The area is still cut off and only accessible by helicopters, which have been flying in paramilitary and army personnel, medical experts and other government officials who have been grappling with the task of locating, identifying and disposing of decomposing corpses, which are buried in mounds of sludge brought by the floods.
Doctors have been photographing bodies, collecting any documents or personal possessions that can be used to identify them and taking DNA samples of hair, skin and fingernails to try and match with relatives later.
But final figures of how many have died may never be known, given that many bodies were carried away by the torrents of water or are buried deep in mud and sludge in accessible areas.
For some of the relatives of the missing presumed dead, this will mean they will never get closure or the chance to perform the last rites of the kith and kin – and the government’s 500,000 rupees ($8347) of compensation brings little respite.
“The money is not important. It’s hard to accept that my mother, brothers, sister-in-laws and nieces and nephews will be presumed dead,” says P.C. Kabra, showing me a poster with the pictures of his 15 relatives.
“The government is right to make this decision as I am sure people will need the money, but it’s hard to accept that they will never return. Whatever the government says, I will keep looking for them. I have to have hope, otherwise I have nothing.”