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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

'Ladakh turned on its people'

August 20, 2010

An eyewitness account of recent floods in India.
By Yifa Yaakov
SPECIAL to the Jerusalem Post (Israel)
August 16, 2010

DELHI, India -- In the far north of India, beyond
Delhi, Shimla and Dharamshala, lies a remote
little region called Ladakh. Sandwiched between
Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and the imposing
hilly state of Himachal Pradesh, its strategic
importance is undeniable. Its proximity to
constantly conflicted Kashmir makes it an important military hub.

But first and foremost, Ladakh is a cultural
treasure trove showcasing the way a people -
Buddhists, Muslims, Aryans, Mongols and others
thrown together in a distinctly central Asian mix
- can survive and even flourish in one of the
most challenging, isolated regions in the world,
a veritable high-altitude desert.

But last week, the land of Ladakh raged and
turned on its people. Nature changed its course,
cloudbursts brought flash floods, mudslides and
avalanches to this usually peaceful region. Over
a thousand were declared missing, hundreds feared
dead. In Ladakh's only "big city," Leh, the
damage was devastating. Outside of Leh, it was bound to be worse.

Between June and September, when the snow melts
and the roads open, Leh is a top tourist
destination. Hundreds of backpackers and trekking
aficionados pour in from countries all over the
map, from South Korea to Canada to Israel, and
from India's 26 states. To supply these tourists
with hot running water, electricity and
continental food means stretching Leh's already
shoddy infrastructure to the limit and playing
host to hundreds of Kashmiri traders eager to
make a quick buck away from their troubled native
land. and so it goes every summer - but not when nature strikes.

When nature strikes, when Leh is buried under
mud, backpackers roam the streets at a loss for
words. Stranded, they drift toward the areas that
suffered the brunt of the damage, watching in awe
as the local men, women and children
energetically lift stone after stone and log
after log, plunging their shovels into the hard,
dry mud. An old woman passes a heavy rock to her
grandchild, who passes it to a Kashmiri, who
passes it to a tourist from France, Germany,
Spain, Poland, New Delhi - and, yes, Israel.

On ordinary days, the Israeli presence in Ladakh
is so strong that handwritten signs in Hebrew
direct backpackers to the best trekking agency,
the best money-changing facility, the best
shakshuka. When disaster strikes, they are right
there with the others, digging, setting up
makeshift medical facilities, rushing on
motorbike from village to village. Some have gone
trekking in the mountains and valleys, and their
friends are hard at work compiling lists of names
of those in possible need of rescuing. The Indian
army has also mobilized, building impromptu
bridges, fixing the demolished roads, sending
much-needed supplies by helicopter and airlifting
people out of flood-stricken areas.

The locals, however, are inconsolable. they
cannot remember a disaster of this magnitude ever
occurring in Ladakh in their lifetime. everyone
knows someone whose shop or house was flooded.
Fearing torrential rains, many take refuge in the
hills surrounding Leh, spending the night in Tata
trucks - India's notoriously noisy, colorfully
painted, utterly ubiquitous commercial transport
vehicles - or in cars and tents. those who stay
behind in Leh sit together and comfort each other
by candlelight, wondering if they should have
fled to higher ground and waiting for drinking
water that never comes. They inspect their roofs
worriedly, wondering if they will survive that
night's downpour, and don't forget to check their pantry.

Most shops are closed, out of identification with
and sympathy for those affected by the tragedy.
The shops that have opened have all amassed
queues; young Israeli backpackers are buying
enough bottles of water to prepare for a nuclear
war. Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan promises to
help restore a Ladakhi school he made infamous in
the mega-hit "3 idiots." The death toll,
meanwhile, is rumored to be far higher than originally reported.

Ordinarily, Ladakh gets very little rain. Its
inhabitants have lived in mud houses for
centuries, carefully cultivating irrigation
channels out of glacial melt-water and
meticulously growing a select number of crops -
mostly different kinds of barley - on all but barren land.

The people of Ladakh are not typical Indians.
ethnically, they are not really Indians at all -
most are Tibetan Buddhists, and indeed, Ladakh
shares a border with Chinese-occupied Tibet. The
Dalai Lama, in exile in popular backpacker
destination Dharamshala, occasionally visits
Ladakh, and his face can be seen on everything
from temple altars to buses to trucks. But Ladakh
is not Tibet. It was an independent mountain
kingdom for several centuries, occupying an
important position on the silk route and on the
crossroads between the Himalayas and the
Karakorum mountains. Its people, over the course
of more than a dozen centuries, developed a
unique identity and culture and grew into a
hardy, resilient people. they developed different
uses for everything, from the barley they grew to
their animals' excrement.Flood-ravaged Ladakh, India

They survived on salty yak butter tea, spun
voluminous sheep's-wool clothes and adhered to the principles of Buddhism.

When westerners were first permitted to penetrate
this region, in 1974, they encountered smiling,
close-knit family unites beaming with
contentedness and a sense of belonging to the
land. they saw a beautiful moon-like landscape
that presented its dwellers, and more so its
cultivators, with challenges time and time anew.

In Ladakh, a society which has already been
fractured by Western influence turns its gaze
skyward. In Chonglamsar, a Tibetan refugee camp
five kilometers away from Leh, the devastation is
so complete that it almost appears as though the
village has always been buried under mud. Cars
can be seen sitting stationary half inside, half
outside the mire; shop facades are squashed and
slanted, leaning down. Women stand on little
islands of caked mud, digging into it with sticks
to unearth stones with religious inscriptions
carved onto them. The people and possessions will
be dealt with later on, when the mud hardens
enough for the army to bring in its heavy machinery.
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