A journalist returns to his hometown in Kashmir after the worst flood in a century

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH here in Boston. When hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, you remember what it was like to meet somebody from there. They were in mourning for their community. Same thing is happening in Kashmir now. The region claimed by both India and Pakistan is underwater. Floods are common there during monsoon season, but this year’s flooding is much worse than usual. Author and journalist Basharat Peer lives in New Delhi but he’s just back from Kashmir. He wasn’t there on assignment, he grew up in Kashmir and went there to check in on his parents as soon as he heard about the floods. Basharat Peer: There would be rains and there would be minor floods throughout the time I was growing up there and all of the years I’ve been going back - my parents live in the main city in Kashmir, which is Sringar, and going back home, the phone networks were down, there was no internet and there was no news of them. Just going back home to look for my family, it’s a city of a million people and suddenly it was most different, it was underwater. We had just moved houses last fall and my old neighborhood was under 20 feet of water, the house I spent 10 years in. You couldn’t even see the roof, it was all gone. We all have mental maps of cities. The bookshop I used to go to to pick up a certain kind of a book, like the coffee shop where I would hang out with my friends, all of your personal landmarks have suddenly been destroyed and have disappeared in a day. My city was like an enormous trashcan full of sad, grieving people and the only question everyone had was “How do I reach my loved ones?” Werman: How were you able to find your parents and how are they doing? Peer: Fortunately, the particular neighborhood that my family lives in, it wasn’t as badly affected as others. The water came very close, it flooded the lawns but in my particular - it’s a patch of say, 20 or 30 blocks, it wasn’t that badly affected. But it was fear - they had to leave the house and spend the night on the top floor of a shopping mall where the entire neighborhood gathered, and then found their way to another corner which was dryer and then three days later they finally made their way back home. But when I walked up to my neighborhood and looked at the rest of the city, that was really the most heartbreaking scene, to see a city you know so intimately completely ravaged in two days. Werman: Those echoes of hurricane Katrina that we’ve been hearing about, people climbing to the high floors. Peer: It is and in some ways, like the response that came from President Bush at that time, the head of the local government had a similar response, which was of utter complete failure to respond. There was no administration, no government there for the next week. We have a huge police force and there’s not one soul on the streets, nobody helping out. The biggest operation to help people out was the people themselves, the civilians taking on different roles. You could see doctors, filmmakers, volunteers becoming aid workers and rescuers. Werman: Have the flood waters started to recede and is there any discussion going on about what might have caused these floods in the first place? Peer: The flood waters have begun to recede but the city of Srinagar, it’s in the middle of a valley, it’s a bowl-shaped place. So because of the structure of the place, and also because all of south Asia has really bad urban planning, that’s kind of the cost of modernity and development, so the water is not receding from large areas in the city, so there are thousands of houses which are still partly under water and the danger is that of disease spreading, epidemics, waterborne diseases. The reasons for this are partly because of growing construction and expanding residential areas and commercial areas and partly it’s also that the Himalayan ecology is very fragile. You’re seeing major floods in Pakistan a couple of years back in northern India, in Uttarakhand, which is a big pilgrimage center for the Hindus; there were massive floods last fall. So it’s just this fragile ecology of the Himalayas and struggling under the pressure of modernity and progress and then the question of climate change is always there, of course. Werman: Did you take your parents back with you to New Delhi? Peer: No, they wouldn’t leave. Since 1990, we had a very long and brutal war in Kashmir which hasn’t ended yet really. They never left then and they would not leave now. Werman: Author and journalist, Basharat Peer, speaking with us from New Delhi. Thanks for your time and for telling us about what’s happening in Kashmir, appreciate it. Peer: Thank you, pleasure talking to you.