Sludge And Solidarity In Indian Kashmir Hospital14 August 2010
Leh: A dank, cloying stench permeates a deserted hospital in Indian Kashmir, where doctors' rooms have turned into swamps and the only sound is foreign volunteers shovelling their way through knee-deep mud. When heavy rains triggered flash floods ten days ago in the high-altitude adventure playground of Ladakh in northern India, the hospital in the regional capital was hit by a series of devastating mudslides. Abandoned hospital beds, their legs trapped in a deep layer of clay-like silt, are one of the few remaining signs of the building's intended purpose. Other clues lie scattered in the muddied car park, where surgical gloves litter the ground along with small items of medical equipment and other debris. The rivers of mud that cascaded down the hills overlooking Leh on the night of August 5 claimed at least 185 lives in the city and surrounding areas. More than a week later, around 400 people are still missing. The force was such that even the ceilings of buildings like the main hospital were splattered as the mudslides tore through the corridors and rooms. The hospital's blood bank, laboratory and nursery, as well as the doctors' treatment rooms were simply submerged under tonnes of watery sludge that is only now beginning to dry and remains almost impenetrable. In one wing, however, a dozen Western tourists, shovels in hand, are trying to dredge out one of the wards, filling and passing earthen bowls of mud down a human chain. French, Germans, Koreans, Americans: they had all come, as thousands do every year, to test themselves on Ladakh's high-altitude trekking trails. When disaster struck, they volunteered to help with the mammoth task of returning Leh to some degree of normality. 'When I realised just how bad the situation was, I came here to help,' said Josephine Penni Stefansson, a 26-year-old schoolteacher from Sweden. 'And I'm in no hurry to leave. 'There are some tourists who have been complaining about the situation, but when you see what actually happened here, there's no space left for complaints,' said Stefansson. 'In the beginning there were about a 100 of us helping out, but as the road links came back and the flights restarted, a lot of people started drifting away. You can't force anyone to stay.' Amazingly, given the scale of the damage, no hospital patients were actually killed in the floods. 'The sound of the storm and the initial mudslides alerted the staff and we were able to move the patients into a new building next door, said Doctor Sonam Angchok, who praised the work of the tourist volunteers. Hanni Schmidt, 19, from Germany has helped out at the hospital every day for the past week. 'We've just been emptying the rooms of the mud and piling it up outside,' Schmidt said. 'It's been a group with people from all over the world. A real experience,' she smiled. The hospital kitchens were virtually destroyed by the mudslides and, for several days, the patients had to go without any food. Hearing of their plight, a British couple who run a specialised travel service with hotels in Ladakh got their cooks to help cater. 'Most of our clients were stuck outside Leh with their trekking groups, so we decided that the cooks should prepare food for the hospital patients and staff - about 170 people,' said Hugo Kimber, who runs Shakti Himalaya. Everyone, it seems, is keen to pitch in. Outside the main door of the hospital, a lone patient in a wheelchair scratched determinedly at the building's mud-caked wall with a small wooden stick.