Last man standing recalls nightmare with a shudder

Last man standing recalls nightmare with a shudder

People salvage their belongings from houses destroyed by a landslide at Vythiri in Wayanad district of Kerala. DH Photo by Janardhan BK

On the night of August 8, as monstrous, flood-induced landslides flattened hills and houses in the interiors of Wayanad district, autorickshaw driver Sunil Kumar struggled to sleep. He was least prepared for the nightmare that would unfold right before his house in Aanoth Ammara, near Vythiri.

It was half past midnight when a six-year-old boy’s screaming plea for help pierced through the night. Kumar rushed out, only to catch the boy, covered in slush, washed down by a devastating stream of stormwater and mud. “Cheta, I want my Umma. Help!” pleaded the boy, pointing to a house caught in the slush storm up the hillside.

The boy’s mother, grandmother and three-month-old baby sister were trapped inside, beyond any hope of survival. “It was then my attention turned to the surroundings. A house that was ready for house-warming a week later had vanished without a trace. Another house was in tatters. There were people trapped everywhere,” recalled Kumar.

Eventually, the boy and the family were rescued. But he was traumatised by that night’s horrific experience. “That kid has still not come to terms with what he saw and experienced. Even today, he keeps crying. He needs psychological help,” said Kumar. “When his mother was rescued later, she believed the boy was gone forever.”

By daybreak, Aanoth Ammara resembled a war zone. Debris from the flattened houses was all over the place. So were hundreds of trees uprooted by the stormwater that had pulverised the entire locality.

Back from a relief camp, Mini Shivam surveyed the broken land where her house once stood, ready for a grand house-warming on Independence Day. “It was our dream. For the past five years, we have been building it brick by brick with whatever savings my husband, a coolie, could make. It cost us nothing less than Rs 20 lakh,” said Mini.

Mini’s ordeal found an echo in the lives of dozens of families like hers, spread across the hillsides of Wayanad, huge swathes of which lie within the natural confines of the Western Ghats region. They had all invested their life savings in small parcels of land, carved out of hilly slopes.

But did they not foresee the danger? “How could we? The last time something like this happened was 94 years ago. It is too distant. Many of us landless people cannot afford the expensive plots in the plains, near the highway. We never imagined we would suffer like this,” explained Vishnu, a victim.

For those rendered homeless, the first thought was of survival after the relief camps close. As 225 students of the MES College Chattimangalam fanned out to survey the damage, coordinator Hafees Ibrahim struggled to respond to a probing query: What next? All that he would say was this: “We are trying to put up some temporary shelters, a small step to rebuilding their lives.”

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