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Black Friday, one decade later

Ten years ago today, on Friday, September 30, 2005, protest demonstrations in the Garo Hills of northeast India turned tragic when police forces of the central government fired their guns at the protesters. In the towns of Tura and Williamnagar, the police firings killed a dozen teenaged students. Ever since, this event has been known as Black Friday. To commemorate the unjust death of the protesters, people across the Garo Hills declare a general strike every September 30, closing schools and businesses for the day. (For more on Black Friday and its background, please see my post from three years ago.)

I first went to the Garo Hills six years ago, in 2009. The problems of political and economic marginalization, which underlay the September 2005 protests, were still very much in evidence in 2009. One positive aspect of the Garo Hills’ then-current political situation was that the area was at peace. In other parts of northeast India, minority groups had responded to their own marginalization by forming insurgencies to wage war against the Indian government. Six years ago, there were organized insurgencies in the Garo Hills, but they were not particularly active. For the most part, the Garo Hills were self-policing. Police authority was not much in evidence, because it wasn’t necessary.

Early in 2015, I returned to the Garo Hills, and I was disappointed to see that the security situation had deteriorated in the past five years. Insurgencies had stepped up their activities, declaring villages to be their territory. They extort, threaten, and sometimes even hurt and kill anyone with wealth or political power who does not support them. In response, the state and central governments have stepped up police presence in the Garo Hills. Armed officers patrol the weekly markets and accompany night buses driving into the hills.

Ten years after Black Friday, the political situation of the Garo Hills has only gotten worse. I do not know the best way for the people of the Garo Hills to make themselves healthy and prosperous, but I do know that threatening, kidnapping, or killing those with power is not the way forward.

Digging out

BAJENGDOBA, MEGHALAYA, INDIA – On September 22 of last year, the Garo Hills of northeast India were ravaged by the worst floods in memory. Monsoon storms triggered flash floods in many of the region’s river valleys. The flooding and related landslides took the lives of around seventy residents of the hills, in addition to causing extensive property damage.

The Garo Hills have a special significance for me, because I spent a year living and teaching here between college and graduate school, from 2009 to 2010. When reports of the floods began to circulate in the days and weeks following September 22, I was horrified to think about such a catastrophe occurring to a place and to people I know and love. Now, in January 2015, I am fortunate to have the chance to visit the Garo Hills again and see the flood damage and subsequent recovery for myself.

The school where I taught, Riverside Adventist Academy, is located in the district worst-affected by the floods, North Garo Hills. On the morning of September 22, the Jinari River entered the school campus by opening a new channel leading right into the cafeteria and big boys’ and girls’ hostels (dormitories). The river toppled sections of the compound walls and brought branches and logs sweeping into campus.

Before the walls fell, the hostel students evacuated to the top floor of the classroom building as the rushing flood water rose above their knees. Three small boys lost their footing and were swept away by the current, but remarkably they were caught in the branches of a banyan tree on the edge of campus. Not a single student from Riverside school was lost in the flood, but one teacher drowned after helping many students to safety. His name was Rituraj Phukan, and he was 31 years old.

It has been almost four months since the floods, and I am happy to see that the school is recovering well. The broken sections of the compound wall have been replaced by temporary fencing. Teachers and non-teaching staff have spent weeks painstakingly cleaning the campus – shoveling mud out of the buildings, righting and re-rooting trees toppled by the water, and clearing away logs that washed onto campus. I am impressed by how beautiful the campus looks now, with graceful gulmohur trees casting their shade onto the walkways. Apart from the broken compound walls and an ugly landslide gash on a nearby hillside, there are few obvious signs that this place was inundated by a deluge just four months ago.

Riverside school will reopen on-schedule for the 2015 academic year in early February. The school and the surrounding community have begun to recover from the floods, but despite appearances, the recovery is far from complete. Damage to buildings and other infrastructure in the Garo Hills (such as the school compound’s walls) will take time to repair. Harder to quantify – and likely harder to repair – will be the human toll of the floods. From my conversations with teachers and students who were at Riverside on September 22, it is clear to me that the floods were a deeply traumatic experience. Many witnesses expressed shock that such a disaster could happen. One student told me that she still feels like it was all a dream. I have noticed more gray hair in the Garo Hills than I remember seeing five years ago. I wonder if the stress of having their homeland inundated is causing the population of the Garo Hills to go prematurely gray.

Even these emotional wounds will heal some day. The families that lost sons and daughters, mothers and fathers to the flooding and landslides will also eventually learn to live without the deceased. This will take years, but I am certain it will happen. I am also certain, though, that the great Meghalaya floods of 2014 will never be forgotten, as long as victims and witnesses of the floods are alive to tell their stories.

(This post continues coverage of the Meghalaya floods, which I started in this post.)

The Great Meghalaya Floods of 2014

Over the past two weeks, I have read with bewilderment as news has unfolded about a spate of catastrophic floods that struck the Garo Hills in Meghalaya state of northeast India. The Garo Hills have a special significance to me, because I spent nine months teaching at a school there, five years ago. I knew the Garo Hills mainly as a quiet place of farms and jungles, and friendly but reserved people. It is hard for me to imagine it as the site of a major natural disaster, and harder still for me to read about the destruction thousands of miles away without being able to do anything about it.

In the predawn hours of September 22, catastrophic floods struck parts of the Garo Hills, particularly the outskirts where the hills meet the plains of the Brahmaputra River Valley. According to the local and regional news, the floods are the worst in the hills’ recorded history. The rivers that flow down from the hills swelled from late monsoon rain and found new channels. The floods washed away almost everything in their paths, destroying huts, toppling trees, wrecking crops, and even demolishing some brick structures. More than a thousand villages were submerged, and fifty-six people lost their lives.

The floods disrupted the transportation and communication infrastructure of the Garo Hills. Landslides blocked NH-51, which is the main road to Tura, the Garo Hills’ largest town. The population of Tura depends on regular shipments of goods coming up on trucks from the plains below. At one point, the Shillong Times reported that Tura had stocks of rice for seven days and sugar for only four. Indian Air Force helicopters airlifted medical supplies into Tura, but since the town has no airport for fixed-wing aircraft, a full-scaled resupply airlift was not possible. Fortunately, relief crews were able to reopen the road before supplies in Tura reached critical levels.

Also affected was the Meghalaya electric power grid. The state’s grid runs entirely on hydroelectricity. Barapani Reservoir, near Shillong on the eastern side of the state, feeds water into the five-stage Umiam-Umtru Hydroelectric Project. In other circumstances, the heavy rainfall could have been a boon, as it filled Barapani to capacity. For the first time in several years, the Meghalaya Electric Corporation Ltd. was forced to open the spillway of the dam to prevent the reservoir from overflowing. At the same time, though, the floods damaged the state’s transmission infrastructure, leaving many areas incapable of taking advantage of the electricity. Some of the damage has proven difficult to repair. In Bajengdoba (where I lived and taught), the substation was flooded and powerlines washed away. Local boys and young men have volunteered to help the state authorities erect new powerlines, but according to the latest reports I have read, electricity has yet to return to Bajengdoba.

Although the immediate danger of the floods is past, the hazard of epidemics, particularly malaria, remains. Even after the monsoon ends, the hills dry out, and the mosquitoes die off for the winter, recovering from the floods’ destruction will be a continuing project. I have no doubt that the people of the Garo Hills will dig out and rebuild, but it may take years. In this work, I wish them all the best.

(For more about the Garo Hills, please see my post series that begins with “A Short History of Garo-Land.” Also, please see my posts about the Umiam-Umtru Hydroelectric Project, part one and part two.)

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