Join our Mailing List

"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?"

The Ladakh Cloudburst: An Eyewitness Account

August 20, 2010

Josh Schrei
The Huffington Post
August 16, 2010

I'm writing this from Leh, where a single night
of mudslides and floods has caused untold
devastation all across the land of Ladakh. While
the media have reported fairly extensively on the
situation, it is impossible to grasp the scale of
the destruction, for this is a vast land, and
literally no town or village in the Ladakh range
has been unaffected. The death toll, when all is
said and done, will be over 1,000. The toll on
Ladakh's future -- given the sheer scope of the
destruction -- is unimaginable. It is something I
have never seen, and certainly nothing I expected
when I decided to come here this summer for the first time.

As someone who has spent many years fighting for
freedom for the Tibetan people, the opportunity
to spend a month in Ladakh doing village
homestays and trekking was a truly exciting one.
I had traveled extensively in Nepal, had been to
Tibet in 1989, had spent some time in Dharamsala,
but never had I experienced a free Tibetan
society that had never known occupation or exile.
In Tibet, my movements had been highly
restricted. I could never talk openly to
Tibetans, or stay in their homes. And I had
noticed, as most travelers to Tibet do, the
impacts that occupation has had on the people
themselves. Even then, there was a restrictive
fear that permeated all interactions with Tibetan
people. And though their exuberance would of
course still shine through, it was clouded by years under the oppressor's boot.

Exile carries with it its own burden, and while
exiled Tibetans live in free societies around the
globe and enjoy the benefits of free movement and
free expression, there is a weight that hangs
over them as well -- the conscious and
subconscious feeling that they are not where they are supposed to be.

One of the first things I noticed in Ladakh --
other than the unexpectedly huge number of
tourist shops in Leh and the phenomenal Indian
military presence -- was the lack of emotional
burden on the people. As I ventured out into
rural farming villages, idyllically green valleys
set in stark canyons below high white peaks, I
found Tibetan people... just being themselves.
Surely this freedom -- to be oneself -- is the
most basic freedom of all. How can the people of
Tibet not have this most basic of rights?

A week after I arrived in Ladakh I went to
Pangong Tso, a crystal turquoise lake that sits
at 4,300 meters on the Changthang plateau. Once I
crossed the high Chang La pass I knew I was
geographically and culturally in Tibet. Nomads
tents dotted majestic river valleys where horses
and yaks grazed. The dress was unmistakably
Tibetan, the language, a mix of Ladakhi and
Tibetan which became more Tibetan the further
east we ventured. At Pangong, one can look across
the lake over the border into Tibet. Staring
across that brief body of water that separates
freedom from occupation, one can't help but
wonder at the nature of borders. What arbitrary
line is it that divides the free from the unfree?
Does the water of the lake know where India stops
and "China" begins? Culturally, historically, and
geographically, Changthang is neither Indian nor Chinese. It is Tibetan, 100%

I returned from Pangong to Leh to find something
rather unusual. It had been raining there, which
it almost never does. Ladakh is a desert,
absolutely dry and free of vegetation, the lush
river valleys fed entirely by Himalayan snowmelt.
The monsoon weather of the Indian subcontinent is
blocked by the vast wall of mountains to the
south. For there to be successive days of rain
was almost unheard of. I asked my guesthouse
owner about it, and he was unequivocal in his
answer. "It never does this. Global warming."

The night of August 5th I had dinner with a group
of Indian travelers -- an architect, a
documentary filmmaker, and their friends from
Mumbai who I had befriended the day before. We
sat at KCs restaurant and talked long into the
night about Hindu myths and 90s grunge music --
common loves for both parties. As we began
getting into some pretty deep conversation about
the Shiva Puranas and the many tales of this very
unpredictable God, the drizzle that had been
steadily falling for an hour or so suddenly became an absolute deluge.

The storm lasted an hour -- sustained rain and
hail and lightning with no let up at all. My
friends and I sat at KCs, speaking of Shiva's
awesome feats, as the storm unleashed itself --
the sound was of a hundred million ball bearings
falling on metal, and lightning ripped across the
sky like constant static along a black wool quilt. It was quite a storm.

In one hour, the land of Ladakh was forever
changed. This vast country shifted. Every valley
in the Ladakh range of the Himalaya saw high
mountains dislodge themselves downwards.
Tragically, the way Ladakh is constructed, every
village clings to a river valley of mountain
snowmelt, and when these mountains dislodge
themselves downwards, there are people living underneath.

The next morning I heard from my guesthouse owner
that there had been "some problem" at the bus
station from the rain. Instinctively, I grabbed
my camera and headed down. As I went, rumors grew
of the scale of the "problem." One person along
the route said that the Leh bus station was "gone."

Yes, the bus station was gone. A vast river of
mud and rock had torn through central Leh,
ripping apart houses, demolishing shops,
flattening structures to the ground. Buses were
tossed about like toys, slammed up against
buildings, wedged under trucks, flattened and
twisted in incomprehensible shapes. As I walked
down the length of the slide, I realized that it
was far more than the bus station. The cascade
extended all the way down the valley, 2 miles or
more, and much of lower Leh was, well, utterly
ruined. I saw a schoolyard buried under 8 feet of
mud, its basketball hoops just managing to peer
over the top of the slide. I saw bloated cows
tossed about, and one lonely, dazed donkey,
wandering through the wreckage, covered in dried
mud and bleating sadly, perhaps just to hear the
sound of his own voice. And yes, I saw bodies.
Leh hospital was quickly lined with them.
Bulldozers lifted splayed-limbed victims out of heaps and heaps of mud.

The first day, as I helped dig out houses and
people formed rough lines to remove rubble from
their shops and homes, rumors started coming in.
It wasn't just Leh. It was Shabu. It was Phyang.
It was Shey. It was Neemu. It was Choglamsar, the
Tibetan refugee community 5 miles from Leh. I
asked about Choglamsar. I was told it was "finished."

As news came in, the people of Leh were
increasingly shaky. Nothing like this had ever
happened in their living memory,,, nothing. At
the slightest hint of rain, people would head
running for the hills, lining the barren ridges
like colorfully clad ants waiting to be swept
away by greater forces. That afternoon, someone
shouted: "Water is coming!" sending crowds into a
frenzy. At night, 1,000 people huddled at the
Shanti stupa, built high on a rock promontory
above Leh, everyone frightened. Yet amid the
fear, in that darkest night, songs leapt upwards.
Tibetan women sang folk songs. An Israeli tourist
brought a guitar. The melodic murmurs of "Om mani
padme hum" and "Country Road" tinged that dark night with utter sweetness.

Over the next four days, I helped out wherever
and whenever I could, in ever widening circles
around Leh. I helped dig out Leh Hospital, where
a Ladakhi Army Officer -- Captain D. Tsewang --
seemingly impressed with my enthusiasm gave me
harder and harder tasks, humorously barking: "Are
you tired now?" each step of the way, to which I
replied: "No, sir!" and kept at it. In two days,
we managed to clear the entire bottom floor of
Leh Hospital, a seemingly impossible task on first view.

The next day I went to Choglamsar, where another
river of mud and rock had come down from the
mountain and continued down the main road,
causing incomprehensible devastation. As I write
this, at least 500 are still missing in
Choglamsar alone. I searched out a friend of
mine's relatives, beaming when I finally found
them safe. They served me tea and biscuits. I dug
out a man's ruined house, pickaxing through
rubble for an hour to finally find a single tin
box that survived underneath the mud and
collapsed brick. We wedged our picks underneath
the box and worked it out slowly. It spilled open
and his precious possessions fell out. At the
top, a small photo album, inscribed in silver
cursive with the words: "Lovely Memories."

At that point, I had seen rivers of devastation,
I had seen bodies of women and children, I had
seen people wailing over lost loved ones... but
something about seeing that photo album,
something about helping this one poor man tear
apart the mud and brick that had filled his one
small house, only to rescue a small book of
"Lovely Memories".... Well, that's when I finally cried.

Yesterday, I went to Phyang, where if things had
gone a bit differently I would have been the
night it all went down. Phyang was a glimpse into
the incredible power of this universe. Half the
village was perfectly intact and eerily peaceful,
cows still lazily grazing, barley fields gleaming
in the sun. The other half was... gone. There was
simply no trace of it, no trace of the two story
houses and the farms... or the families. The
whole thing was swallowed by a 30 foot wall of
mud and stone. As we began the daunting task of
digging for bodies, one couldn't help but
wonder... why had the storm spared one house and
not the other? Why did I make the decision not to
come here that night? What great hand casts the
dice that determine these fates?

In an hour, a whole land can shift, a whole
people's future change forever. Ladakh, rich off
of tourist dollars and the prosperity of its
farming villages had seen unprecedented economic
development over the last ten years. Now, all of
that is gone. I cannot overemphasize the scale of
the destruction... the lives lost are just the
beginning. The Ladakhi people will be rebuilding for a very long time.

When something like this happens in a Buddhist
land such as Ladakh, one cannot help but wonder
at the karma of it all -- the karma of the
Tibetan people, who've suffered more than their
share over the past 60 years, the karma of of the
people whose homes were spared vs. those who were
swept away, and then, my own personal karma, to
finally be a free traveler in a free Tibetan
land, only to arrive in time for the greatest
disaster this land has ever known. One thing I do
know, it seems to be my karma to help the Tibetan
people, even when I least expect to do so. That
is a karma I readily embrace, it is my honor to
do so however and wherever I can.

Those wanting to help are encouraged to donate through <>.

* Josh Schrei is Marketing Director, Strategist,
Producer, Writer, Critic, Activist
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank