Ist person account of the travel on the cursed Srinagar-Jammu highway by Ajaz Rashid
It was bone-chilling cold outside and I was stuck in my vehicle for nearly 10 hours that felt like eons. There were hundreds of other passengers who were also confined in their vehicles, waiting for a signal from the authorities to allow the traffic to move towards Srinagar. The situation was horrible under that mountainous stretch between Ramban and Banihal, especially near Digdol stretch. I call it the devil’s mouth because, during the last few years, dozens of people including the highway road workers have lost their lives there. It often remains closed due to heavy landslides and falling stones.
When I left Jammu, I had never imagined that a few hours journey on NH-44 from Jammu to Banihal would be one full of suffering for me, and a stretch of just 50 KMs would take me more than 30 hours to cross. I left from Jammu at 10 AM and reached Ramban at 12:30 PM which is how long it usually takes me during my routine journey on the Highway. I passed by the Ramban market, having decided that I would have lunch in Banihal, where I expected to reach within two hours. But the decision turned horribly wrong for me as I got stuck at Digdol for more than 30 hours without any food supply. I had only carried drinking water with me which proved to be a life-saver over the course of those excruciatingly long 30 hours.
During daylight, it was still normal outside, but as soon as the sun began to fade, I felt restless because I was alone in my vehicle and had never faced such helplessness. As the darkness overlapped the sky, an air of despair covered the entire place.
My family in Srinagar and Jammu were continuously calling me, worried about my well-being. I was hungry since morning and there was no availability of food around the area. Till 8:00 PM, there was some movement of passengers and truck drivers in the area but after some time, all the passengers took shelter inside their vehicles and there was a pin drop silence outside. After waiting for a few more hours, I finally decided to sleep on a hungry stomach. The temperature outside was freezing and my car heater helped keep me warm, but I had to shut it after a few hours because I needed to save fuel for I didn’t know how long the highway would remain closed. I covered my body with extra clothes which I had kept in the luggage, but they barely kept me warm.
Finally, at 3:00 AM in the morning, a person came and knocked on the windows of the vehicles shouting that the road has been reopened. I smiled and with my eyes still sleepy turned on the engine. I followed the loaded trucks for few kilometres. We had to drive on a road that was carpeted with small rocks. Soon, the trucks in front of me stopped and so did I. It was dark and I could barely see a Tavera in front of me and some private cars behind me. All the traffic seemed to be on halt. After a few minutes, I saw huge rocks falling down from the mountain. I got shivers down my spine when a huge rock hit the Tavera that was in front of my vehicle. The rock was followed by numerous other falling rocks which hit the vehicles on that stretch randomly. There was no way to move ahead or retreat. Some small cars including mine found a chance to move back a little and were able to find a safe passage out of the landslide. I was lucky enough to escape but not everyone one there was lucky enough. Dozens of vehicles got damaged in the landslide. Everyone was in shock and we didn’t go inside our cars for an hour because we were in a state of total shock. After some time, we came to know that three people had died due to the landslide. It was a nightmare for me. The time was 4:00 AM in the morning and I had already spent more than 18 hours at that stretch. As soon as dawn arrived, we started to enquire about the well-being of others. The landslide stopped for a while and I along with a few other drivers decided to cross the stretch. It was risky but we had no option because if the slide started again, we would be stuck there for days.
I escaped imminent death and it was like a rebirth for me. I reached Ramsoo at 8:00 AM and headed straight into the police station there and asked the officer on duty for a cup of tea. At 9:00 AM, I started my journey again but it took me 12 more hours to reach Banihal.
It’s extremely disappointing and sad that a stretch of just 50 kms took me more than 30 hours to cross. I reached home after 36 long hours. This horrible journey added a bitter experience in my life, one that I will never forget. Later, I came to know that thousands of people have lost their loved ones on the JK highway. I got to know that the number of people killed on the J&K highway is greater than the people killed in the 30 year-long conflicts in Kashmir. I have decided that from now on, I will opt for air travel in the future. The NH-44 is not the road to Jammu or Srinagar, rather it is a Road to Death.