| Kashmiris walk past BSF soldiers during the reopening of the civil secretariat in the durbar move in Srinagar on Monday. (Reuters)
Srinagar, May 9: For 16 years, gunfire was the only sound that broke the morning calm. Today, it was the long-forgotten wail of sirens.
At 10 am sharp, residents jerked alert as sirens at government offices in the city went off simultaneously for the first time since militancy erupted in the Kashmir Valley.
The sirens, activated by the stateís civil defence department, coincided with the 'durbar move' when government offices shift back to Srinagar after their six-month stay in winter capital Jammu. It signalled 'the beginning of office time in the summer capital', said a civil defence officer.
The sirens had fallen silent as the government did not want to cause panic among residents and strain their already taut nerves. A.H. Beigh, deputy controller, civil defence, said the sirens could not be activated earlier because of the 'prevailing situation' in Kashmir.
Now that they have broken their silence, they will be sounded at 10 am everyday. 'And they will run for two minutes,' Beigh added.
But the unexpected call this morning did send a frisson of fear through the streets that have known terror for far too long.
'I first panicked. I thought there was danger. You know, itís Kashmir, and the sudden long wailing sound frightened me,' said Mushtaq Ahmad, a government employee.
'I looked around but everything was normal. Later, I heard that the civil defence department had activated the defunct siren. It was after a long time that we heard the sound at 10 am.'
Beigh said the sirens would also highlight the role played by his department during natural calamities like fire, quakes, floods and avalanches.
For long, the civil defence apparatus in the state lay in a shambles as civilians, who form the backbone of this system, shied away from joining the voluntary force. But an aggressive countrywide campaign appears to have enthused local residents.
'The sirens have increased the local interest in civil defence activities. Over two dozen people wanted to join the 10-day civil defence course today itself,' Beigh said.
'We pay them Rs 45 for refreshments every day but that is not the main attraction,' he added. 'The sense of serving society in times of crisis is the main motivation, especially among the youths.'
Beigh said the volunteers are trained to search and rescue and also in 'fire-fighting' and handling of equipment. 'They can be utilised in the initial response, like a rescue operation during avalanches,' he said.