DEHRADUN, India — The pilgrims came seeking salvation and a place in heaven, but now their faces stare from banners and tatty flyers tacked to gates and walls of Indian villages and hill-towns.
Some are children, smiling as they pose between parents; others are elderly couples standing side-by-side looking into the camera. Many posters show groups from the same family and some offer rewards of up to 200,000 rupees ($3,340).
All carry the names of those pictured and a telephone number. All have one word in common: “Missing.”
A month ago, India’s Himalayan region of Uttarakhand was lashed by its heaviest rainfall on record, causing glacier lakes and rivers to burst their banks and inundate towns and villages.
Now authorities say there is little hope of finding alive the 5,748 people declared to be missing from the disaster, making it the deadliest ever in the mountainous region.
“Three generations of my family were there. What am I going to do now?” asked P.C. Kabra, a middle-aged civil servant searching for any sign of 15 relatives at the main police station in the hill-town of Dehradun.
Kabra, from the city of Lucknow, told how he lost contact with his family, including his mother, two brothers, sisters, their spouses and children, when the floods struck the Kedarnath Valley at the heart of the disaster.
“I last spoke to my elder brother on June 17 at 6 o’clock in the morning. He called me and was screaming, ‘There is water everywhere. We are in danger, please help us,’” said Kabra, who has been hoping against hope as he scours the area’s hospitals.
“The phone disconnected after that and I haven’t been able to get through since then,” he said, lifting black-rimmed glasses to wipe away tears.
The disaster affected not just inhabitants but the tens of thousands of devotees who flock each year on a pilgrimage to the temple towns of Kedarnath, Gangotri, Badrinath and Yamunotri.
Authorities say a significant percentage of the missing were pilgrims, like Kabra’s relatives, who came from other parts of India. Many pilgrims and residents were stranded for days but military rescuers pulled more than 100,000 of them to safety.
The flash floods and landslides washed away or damaged 5,000 roads, 200 bridges and innumerable buildings on river banks. But with many roads still blocked, some areas are only reachable by air.
The calamity was a “Himalayan tsunami” that brought death and destruction to a rugged terrain sprawling over 37,000 sq. km, said Vijay Bahuguna, chief minister of the state of Uttarakhand that suffered the brunt.
“We are not getting into the controversy whether the missing persons are dead or not,” said Bahuguna. “We are abiding by what the families of the victims say, and if they think that they haven’t come back and have no hope as well, [then] we are providing them monetary relief.”
Without a body, Indian law does not allow a person to be declared dead until seven years have elapsed, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a weekend interview.
Even so, the death toll is likely to be too low, say aid workers and people living in the disaster zone, who say more than 10,000 people were in the area when the floods struck.
Air force pilots, who were operating more than 40 helicopters at the peak of the search, have had to negotiate narrow valleys, sometimes flanked with dense forest, and unpredictable mountain weather. Two helicopters have crashed during the rescue and 20 servicemen killed.
While Bahuguna said it was still possible some of the injured had taken refuge in mountain villages cut off from telecommunications, air force officials did not think that was likely.
“Even if people had managed to climb up the mountains to avoid the deluge, there is no way they could have survived in these wild forests for a month,” said Air Commodore Rajesh Isser, who is heading air force operations.
Government officials say most deaths occurred in the narrow, 14-km Kedarnath Valley, with its temple town dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, whose role is to destroy the universe in order to re-create it.
At the time of the disaster, officials say there were about 5,000 registered inhabitants. But there are no records of the number of pilgrims and migrant workers, many from Nepal, who work in hotels, restaurants and as porters in the region.
The area is still only accessible by helicopters that have been flying in paramilitary and army personnel, medical experts and other officials trying to locate, identify and dispose of decomposing corpses buried in mounds of sludge.
Doctors have been photographing bodies, collecting any documents or personal possessions which can be used to identify them, and taking DNA samples.
But the final figures of the dead may never be known, with many bodies believed to have been carried away by the torrents and buried deep in mud and sludge.
Some relatives grieve that this will leave them no chance of performing last rites for their loved ones. The 500,000 rupees ($8,347) compensation from the government is scant comfort.
“The money is not important,” said Kabra. “It’s hard to accept that my relatives will be presumed dead. Whatever the government says, I will keep looking for them. I have to have hope, otherwise I have nothing.”