What was it like for a Muslim to be one of the first to come to the aid of Hindu pilgrims?
Yunus laughs out loud before giving a quick answer. “In the Air Force we are taught only one religion – to be Indian. That is what IAF pilots are trained to be. Had it not been for such tragic circumstances, I would have been grateful and happy to see the holy shrine.”
Here's the story...
When the IAF flew it first sortie to save pilgrims trapped by the raging waters of the Alaknanda in Kedarnath, at the cockpit was Wing Commander S M Yunus.
Commanding officer of the 152 Helicopter Unit based at Sarsawa Air Force Station, Yunus first got the message about the disaster on June 16. The rains, which had been pouring since June 14, had begun rampaging by the next day.
On June 17, Yunus landed at Dehradun’s Jolly Grant helipad. The next morning, around 9am, he was off to Kedarnath in his Mi-17 V5 chopper, IAF’s newest and most powerful acquisition with a carrying capacity of 3 tonnes.
The first batch of 20 people was evacuated to Guptkashi. From there, they made their way to Dehradun. Yunus reckons he might have flown about 500 people in innumerable sorties to safety. He is still at it. “We continued the operation on June 18 and 19,” he said from his current location in Joshimath. “I was then told to rescue people from the more isolated Harsil sector, ahead of Uttarkashi, and in a restricted helipad at about 6000 ft.”
Bad weather and poor visibility made things difficult. Add to that the terrain and Yunus’ job was cut out. “When we landed at Kedarnath, roughly 9,600ft, the helipad had been washed away. We had to rescue people from the ridge. Twice we set out on our mission and had to return to base as landing was impossible.” Yunus changed course and went to Badrinath on June 20, from where 25 pilgrims were brought to the safer Joshimath. The sorties continued. On June 23, he airlifted more than 200 from Badrinath and brought them to Joshimath.
Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Sikh, we're all Indians first!
Proud to be Indian!