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India: hard knocks but an unshakeable faith

Widows receive priority assistance from Save the Children in emergencies…and now, in Uttarakhand, there are many more of them.

Bhisheshwari Devi is 70 years old; her husband passed away about a year ago. She lived a quiet life along the banks of the Mandakini river – until June 16. It had been raining for a while by then.

As Bhisheshwari made herself a cup of tea, she heard people shouting on the road outside. As they pelted past, one man turned to her and yelled “Run: run for your life!” She turned and saw the river spilling in through her house, leaving her only one choice: to run.

Although she is neither young nor used to running, a life lived in the hills means Bhisheshwari’s legs are strong and she made the shelter of a neighbour’s house on  higher ground. She took one last look at her house and the swelling waters, realising that her house would be gone by the time she came out to look again.

It continued raining hard for more than a day. Sure enough, when she dared to step outside again, her house had gone – as were all the other houses, shops and restaurants around it.

The calm after the storm

By the time she arrived in Silli village, where Save the Children were distributing aid, she seemed calm again. Silli is in the Agastyamuni stretch of Rudraprayag in Uttarakhand, the gateway to this disaster, which has caused death and destruction on a scale so enormous that the precise figures may never be known.

She is hurting but accepting – and too proud to grieve in public. Also, other women have seen worse: at least Bhisheshwari was not widowed by the floods. Most of the men who worked in the higher reaches of Badrinath and Kedarnath will never come  back to their vanished homes. There are many new widows in the aid distribution areas, most of them with children in tow. It’s a sad sight.

What will help you now?

“What kind of aid do you want now?” I asked Bhisheshwari, as I handed her food and hygiene kits. She didn’t have to think too long. “A place to stay,” she said. “I have many relatives and friends around here who have known me for many years and who are kind to me but ultimately I will need a place of my own again, won’t I?”

Since her property may be considered an illegal construction built too close to the river bank, she does not expect much from the government. But she is hopeful that help will come from somewhere. She believes that the spirits and gods of these hills have punished the people yet her trust in Shiva is unshakeable: “God has wreaked this havoc,” she says, “and he will find a way to rescue us – at least those of us who continue to pray to him.”

Devendra Singh Tak works for Save the Children India

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