"Ö Race against time which I amazingly win at the end"
Airports are cosy places where thereís nothing to do but relax
By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed
Airports have not been a nuisance to me, the way they are to many others. I have no problems with arduous security checks, waiting endlessly in departure lounges in case of flight delays or running from one corner to the other searching for lost luggage.



In search of Crusoe

If you are shipwrecked on a lonely island, wait for Man Friday to give you company. Robinson Crusoe couldnít do better. But if you are stranded in Gilgit-Baltistan, completely disconnected from the world by floods, with food and fuel supplies running low, donít wait for someone to come to your help. You are on your own. Expect some hardships and few adventures.

This is how I found myself in Chilas last July. Marooned, not entirely like Crusoe.

On the morning of July 26, Chilas Inn was bubbling with 17 enthusiastic officers from the Land Acquisition and Resettlement Wing of Wapda, five of them were young ladies. Also present there was Faryal Gohar, a celebrity and an animal-rights-activist. She was in Chilas working on her Ph.D thesis on Soniwals, an indigenous tribe panning along Indus which thrives on gold. Due to rain in the early hours no fieldwork was possible, so the group decided to stay in the hotel and enjoy an unusually Ďcoolí weather. Chilas is normally hot at this time of the year. None of us suspected what trouble was brewing in the valleys above.

Next day while the rain was still pouring we started receiving alarming news: the bridges of Karakoram Highway (KKH) on Indus near Bisham had been washed away; massive landslides had blocked KKH at several places; communication links had brokenÖ Chilas was cut off from the country down below and also from Gilgit in the North.

The Thak Nullah seemed like a volcanic eruption, destroying everything in its way. Zahid, the young AC of Chilas took considerable risk, rushing up this valley on foot to assess the damage in Neyat, an area North West of Babusar Pass. He returned after sunset, muddied and depressed. The two hydroelectric power stations supplying electricity to this district were damaged along with most of the transmission lines.

That evening Chilas descended into darkness. Sibtain Ahmad, the Deputy Commissioner declared emergency in Diamer District and appealed for help.

Now help from outside was not possible. The district became (and still is) landlocked and consistent rain made air cover impossible. The water in Indus had risen to dangerously high level. The weather forecast meant more trouble.

While crossing the suspension bridge on the river at Thalpan in blinding rain, I met a 65-years-old chowkidar who told me that he had never seen such water in the Sindhu River ó and probably will never see again. But the water level was still rising. The group at Chilas Inn decided to help the district administration in whatever manner it was possible. Meanwhile I rang up my office at Lahore to inform them of the tragedy that had stuck Chilas.

By July30, the mass media had focused all attention towards Kohistan and Swat districts of Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa, with Chilas and its surroundings beyond their reach.

However, the mute pleas were answered from Moscow where Chairman Wapda was on an official business tour. The Chilas group which had now turned into a volunteer force, started working with the funds flowing from Wapda.

The group split into three, two carried relief goods and dry rations to Dariel and Tangir valleys, while the third group consisting of women, led by Faryal Gohar, rushed to DHQ Hospital to help the injured evacuated from different areas. They also distributed goods among the victims evacuated from Thuk valley. The relief efforts continued till we ran out of fuel and food and were forced to take the most unusual exit route from Chilas via the Batogah pass.

The 17-day-stay at Chilas was filled with tense moments and high drama. A group of young officers crossed over to right bank in the morning and were lucky to get back safely, as the suspension bridge at Gais Bala swayed dangerously.

Two hours later, the bridge was gone, devoured by angry waves. Lady luck favoured me twice in a single day when I had gone to Khenar valley to assess the damage done in the previous days and was struck by another flash flood. I narrowly missed the wall of gushing water and mud by seeking higher elevation. The journey back was equally hazardous. Crossing the suspension bridge at Thalpan at night, with mighty Indus roaring down Ö it was scary, very scary. A few hours later a part of this bridge also collapsed. That same night 12 people died in the valley.

DC Chilas in a jirga at Gonar Farm valley, motivated people to resort to Halla Shiri as other help was forthcoming. Halla Shiri is a tribal way of rebuilding infrastructure of communal importance such as road, mule track, water channels and bridges. Local men divide themselves into two or three groups to complete the work. They contribute equally to meet the cost of cement, gun-powder (used for blasting rocks), other building materials and above all for communal lunches.

Kifayat, an irrigation specialist, who had worked in Afghanistan on similar terrain, drew a sketch on soft ground, outlining the source and the slope. The agronomist and soil specialists gave further tips to the jirga and it was decided to start communal work.

Nearly 400 people started work on water channel at daybreak. A dozen tribesmen were assigned the work for preparing the communal lunch. The sacrificial bullock decided to teach few lessons in bull fighting to this Ďdození. The sandy ground beside the stream was transformed into a bullfighting arena.

In moments two were knocked down clean by the Ďraging bullí. The crowd scrambled on boulders to witness this comic scene. I cried, "Olay Oley" and the crowd responded cheerfully. More novice matadors entered the arena to replace the ones chased away by a bull. After a tough fight the bull was brought down and cooked to serve a tasty lunch.

The water channel was completed after a Herculean labour of three days. Two days later it was washed away again by fresh flood. All the hard work was in vain and had to be redone.

One manís misery was another manís bonanza. Once I noticed a small crowd buying ice from a tractor trolley parked in the bazaar. Two men on the trolley were digging ice with spades, consolidating it into blocks, which was then slipped into polythene bags and sold for Rs20 per bag. This ice was dug from a glacier at the top of Buttogah pass and each trip would fetch them a profit of Rs15,000. In the warm weather with no electricity for ten days snow was sold like hot cakes.

On the 17th day after the start of deluge, fresh vegetables, fruits, poultry, eggs, gas cylinders, electricity, diesel and petrol had vanished. The prices of other commodities were skyrocketing. It was time for us to go from Chilas through the only possible route ó the dreaded Buttogah pass. The mule track to Buttogah top was bulldozed into jeepable track in 1990s. It was abandoned since a grey top road was build up to Babusar pass, which is much shorter, but was blocked by landslides and damaged bridges. The return journey was a drama punctuated with narrow escape from a landslide, punctured tires and tow-chaining a jeep.

The rollercoaster drive offered exotic scenery of natural beauty along the slopes, making the trip highly recommended for those who seek high adventure. The Buttogah top, at an altitude of 4190 meters was reached after four hours where I met people whom I had befriended while buying ice in the Chilas bazaar.

Two tractor-trolleys were perched at the ridge and men were busy, using spades to load solid snow from the glacier. We had reached the watershed. Across this ridge there were green and violet meadows spreading down east towards Naran and in less than two hours Lulusar Lake would be reached. Leaving Chilas behind, we descended towards this lake which is shrouded with enchanting fairy tales.

The writer is General Manager (Land Acquisition and Resettlement) Wapda gmlarp@gmail.com


17 days in flood-hit Chilas, cut off from the world, with food and supplies fast running out

By Raheal Ahmad Siddiqui



"Ö Race against time which I amazingly win at the end"

Airports are cosy places where thereís nothing to do but relax

By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed

Airports have not been a nuisance to me, the way they are to many others. I have no problems with arduous security checks, waiting endlessly in departure lounges in case of flight delays or running from one corner to the other searching for lost luggage.

In fact, for me, the very feeling of being at the airport is relaxing. Because, till the moment that I am actually there Iím never sure Iíd be able to make it. I donít remember a single instance when Iíve reached the airport ahead of the departure time. Itís always a race against time. Surprisingly I win at the end.

Despite repeated resolves, I start packing late and postpone most menial of the tasks for the last moments ó for no valid reason. I go out shopping or apply for leave from work hours before the flight time.

I still remember an occasion when I lost my e-ticket and couldnít find a printer to print a new one. I stopped at a couple of internet cafes on my way to the airport, but could not find a single functional printer. Finally the problem was solvedÖ a cafť owner suggested I download the e-ticket on my laptop and show it to the person present at the check-in counter.

Honestly itís not the mechanical body search, luggage scan or waiting endlessly for my turn at the security counter that trouble me, rather the frenzy around me; a few days before the trip is what I dread. Things become messy; out of control. I direct my wife, on the phone, to place my stuff in such and such suitcase or handbag for I donít have time to ensure all the things are in place ó and come to know about them only when the customs personnel open the bags for checking.

Once at the airport, my first priority is to get as much luggage checked-in as possible. Once or twice Iíve even stuffed my handbag into the suitcase. But this laptop thingÖ I canít do that anymore. They make us carry it separately for reasons they know better.

Iím relaxed the moment my boarding pass is issued. Because I know the flight cannot take off without me, a strange feeling overcomes me ó of pride and satisfaction which makes the whole environment quite appealing.

Strangely, Iíve even started enjoying the security clearance. Experience has taught me how to get through it in the minimum possible time ó cotton trousers without belt, a pair of slippers and a wallet purged of nickels and keys get you going while others struggle with their belts and stuff in their pockets and shoes with laces.

Once done with the formalities, I look out for the remotest and quietest part of the departure lounge and try to organise my visit schedule ó something I should have done much earlier. I call my wife to ask where she has put the cell phone charger and camera battery. Next I call friends and relatives if I am proceeding abroad.

And then I relaxÖ I sit idle or lay back or close my eyes or sip a chilled drink. I relish this moment as I have all the reason in the world to do nothing. For this very reason, Dubai airport suits me best. It has a large silence zone for people like me to chill.

But this doesnít mean that all the airports I have been to have offered me this comfort. For instance the Gwadar airport, where I thought our plane had drifted and landed in some war zone. It looked more like a single-storey two-bedroom house.

As I was moving along the corridor to reach the parking area, I saw about a dozen Special Services Group (SSG) commandos darting towards me from all sides. They had deadly automatic weapons in their hands which were pointing at me. To add to the terror were noisy vehicles and security personnel who were yelling at everyone in sight to clear the way.

For a moment I thought it was time to pray and seek forgiveness for all the sins I had committed. Eventually it transpired they had come to receive three Chinese engineers who were on the same flight and were walking right behind me. I must confess: quitwt a reception it was! And this was not all. There were dozens of police and paramilitary force personnel who moved these engineers to an armoured vehicle and escorted them to the guest house at Gwadar Port.

This incident apart I have generally enjoyed the laid-back environment at the airports to the fullest.


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