Long Reads: From the ruins of a deadly Kashmir gun battle

Tale of a village symbolising the gun battle scenes of South Kashmir    

“If God was powerful enough to save us, he surely is supreme enough to take our revenge”…

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On April 11, three militants were trapped in a cordon laid by the forces in Khudwani area of South Kashmir. The day long gun battle between the two warring parties and the subsequent clashes between the forces and civilians to save the trapped militants ended in killing of three unarmed youth. Mircaulously, all the three militants escaped unhurt.  

Umar Sofi recounts the day ‘beyond an encounter’. He tries to capture different characters; a man who was used as human shield, another person whose gold was stolen allegedly by the forces, and the one who is salvaging the leftover from the ruins of his house

 

“The lights were off, it was pitch dark. Just around midnight, they jumped over the wall of our courtyard, brought out the whole family into the compound, and directed their search lights onto our faces. Two of them then came forward and pulled me by my neck. One fixed a small camera on my forehead and the other one handed his search light into my hand. Then they asked me to walk though all the rooms of the adjacent houses while they followed behind me with the muzzles of their AK-47’s above my shoulders as I was leading the queue,” said Naseer Ahmad Lone.

Lone was used as a human shield by the Indian army during the encounter between militants and government forces.

That day had been peaceful in the volatile Khudwani area of South Kashmir after week long protests against the killing of twelve militants and one civilian, who too was used as a human shield by the Indian army in the adjacent district of Shopian in a similar gun battle a week ago.

It was during the intervening night of the 10th and 11th of April at around 10:25 PM that the patrolling party of the Indian army was attacked by militants. This had led to a fierce encounter between the two, resulting in the death of three civilians who, as per police, had tried to break the army cordon so as to help the militants escape.

The Khudwani area of South Kashmir is roughly 7 to 8 kilometres from the main square of Kulgam town and mostly in the news for militancy related incidents that take place on and off near there.

When this reporter visited the place few days after the encounter, the Wani Mohalla locality of Khudwani had been reduced to nothing but rubble, with household items of the houses that were razed to the ground and scattered all over.

Most houses were owned by the poorer residents who work as day labour. One could see a table set up on the street leading to the locality, with some men collecting money for the victims from people who have come to see the catastrophic aftermath of this dreaded encounter.

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A view of the ruins of the houses that were blasted Photograph by Mudasir Rawloo

I saw Bilal Ahmad Dar, in his forties, who rents out carpets for marriage ceremonies in his locality, scavenging through a soot covered locker in an alley outside his demolished house.

“They (army) put us with our two, 4 and 2 year old daughters inside a room on the ground floor, fired on the electric circuit box, and then all the lights went off. Then, they locked the door of the room from the outside. I could hear their steps as they walked upstairs. Soon there was a bang outside the window of our room,” he told me.

“I pulled out a solar light from a cupboard and switched it on as my children were terrified in the dark after hearing the boom. I could see some of the army men trying to break open our personal locker which they had thrown down from the 2nd storey into the alley. It had all our savings and my wife’s gold jewellery in it. In the morning, we came out of the room, and I went straight away to check on the valuables kept this locker. Neither the cash nor the gold was anywhere to be found,’’ he said with an expressionless face.

“Usually, when I return home in the evening, I bring along some fruit for my daughters. But now the times are so rough that there was not much money left to buy anything. It was just that some sweets were left over in a box for my children when they felt hungry during the dead of the night when the army men even stopped us from getting some water from the kitchen and from using the washroom. We had an empty fire pot which we used during winters to warm themselves, that we all defecated in. It’s all gone now: the gold, the carpets and the house.  See, it is just the ash that is left. They sat it ablaze even after realising that no militants were inside; that is how they are and that is what they are paid for,” he added while taking out a set of burnt school certificates from the locker.

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(Bilal Ahmad Dar along with his wife and children inside his home which was reduced to ashes. Photograph by Mudasir Rawloo)

Directly across in the same alley was the house of Shabir Ahmad Wani. Some people were hustling to clear off the debris in the second story which had been totally destroyed. There was no roof, no windows. It was just broken walls with bullet marks peppered all over, on every single wall, on every single side of them.

When asked about the night of the encounter, he said, “I was ailing. I heard some gun shots at around 10:30 PM. I thought that some youth might have pelted stones at the army, and that might be some retaliatory aerial firing, as it lasted for just a few seconds. It was around 3:30 AM that some local man knocked at our door with a torch in his hand and a camera fixed on his head”.

“He asked that all the family members come out. I could not see his face as it was too dark, and his light was consistently directed at my face, but he was a local and he spoke in Kashmiri. When we tried to resist, someone started to abuse me from behind the outer door. I did not have the courage to move ahead and see who it was, so my family which was standing right behind me followed me and tried to recognise him. As soon as we stepped out the outer gate, all of us except the one who knocked at our door were caught by a group of army men who took us out from the area. Till dawn, we stayed at my brother’s place who lives a kilometre away from my home. The next morning, we heard some blasts, and smoke had filled the air in our locality. It was then in the evening that we were allowed to return home, only to find that our home was nothing but a junkyard”.

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Damaged house of Shabir Ahmad Wani. Photograph by Mudasir Rawloo

The abortion of the Kulgam encounter by the authorities was being seen as a major setback for the forces that day. Even after causing so much of destruction to local properties and taking the life of three civilians, the militants got away.

“Empty cartridges of Pakistani bullets have been found all over the place in Shabir’s house where the militants had taken shelter. We knew that the militants were still inside somewhere in between these houses. We were already done with three houses. We could have gone ahead but we did not, only because we tried to prevent as much collateral damage as we could. As far as civilian killings are concerned, my job as a police officer is to protect the law abiding citizens, not the ones who bypass it,” SSP Sridhar Patel, who was in-charge of the operation that day, told me.

“There is an Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) in place that no civilian movement is allowed within a range of one and a half kilometers from the encounter site, and it was just 200 metres away that more than 2500 youth had assembled, pelting stones at us so as to provide an escape route to the militants, which in no case is a lawful activity. There was a justification for it and we could have killed even more by firing indiscriminately, but we did not do that.”

While many houses in the whole locality were set on fire, Javaid Ahmad Lone, brother of Naseer Ahmad Lone, who was used as a human shield by the army, recalled that the operational commander of the army stopped him from extinguishing the fire that had burned down his home after the adjacent house was blasted.

“Let your house burn, why are you extinguishing it?” he said to me. “Please, Sir, leave me. I don’t have any insurance on my house. Everything will be destroyed,” I replied. “Once your house is completely burnt, we will get it insured later,” he responded with a perverted grin on his face amid the blazing flames all around him.

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Naseer Ahmad Lone standing infront of the remains of his house. Photograph by Mudasir Rawloo

In the middle of the wreckage, there was a small house, much like an outbuilding, with three people sitting on the veranda, including one little kid struggling to dig out a bullet from the outside wall.  Everything inside its single room was scattered about.

“We crawled to the kitchen and hid ourselves below the sink and spend the whole night there as bullets were raining from all sides until dawn. They tried to burn us alive, but God saved us, so we are alive. We are weak. We are helpless; we can’t avenge what they have done to us. If God was powerful enough to save us, he surely is supreme enough to take revenge for us,” said Mohd Yousuf Wani whose rubble of a house was still smouldering just next to Shabir’s.

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Mohd Yousuf Wani along with his wife in front of his house. Photograph by Mudasir Rawloo

Video of three militants who fled from the place of gun battle

 

Umar is Student of journalism at Degree College Anantnag. He can be contacted at umarsofi@icloud.com 

 

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