Bemdoora Bamboozle?

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For most of the last half a  year, the fateful encounter that killed teenage rebel Burhan Wani has remained a sort of riddle. Aakash Hassan revisits the village to understand the costs that the brief gunfight entailed

The remains of the house in Bemdoora where popular militant commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani was killed in an encounter with forces. (Aakash Hassan)

LEANING against the veranda of her modest two storey home, Ruby Jan still shrieks at the sight of a stranger. On July 8, she had seen around two dozen armoured vehicles park on the road, from the same spot. Then, she rushed in and informed her brother Hafizullah Wani, in terrified tone: “army is outside”.

Wani, while calming down his sister, asked her mother to check the house properly. “He wanted to be doubly sure there was nobody hiding in the house,” recalls Ruby, whose house is located on the road, separated by a fence.

After a swift search of the house, Wani came out to check what was happening outside.  “Soldiers had taken position everywhere,” Wani remembers. “They had positioned themselves inside the drain, behind under construction basement.”

It was half-past four.

Suddenly Wani’s phone rang. It was his brother, Sartaj Ahmad. He was trapped inside the washroom, located outside the house, adjacent to the road, from where army men were firing.

As Ruby learned about her brother Sartaj, she rushed out shouting:, Sartaja… nearu neabar, tche chuk vene atte! (Sartaj…come out, are you still inside).

Before Sartaj could come out soldiers jumped in the lawn and called out family, with their fingers on a trigger.

“They got hold of Sartaj and Hafizullah and began asking about militants,” recalls Ruby. “They took us inside the cowshed. Then without provocation they began beating us,” said Wani.  “They wanted to know the whereabouts of militants.”

Women walk past the remains of the house where Burhan Wani spent his last hours.

When the brothers denied any knowledge of militants, a local police officer, who was with the army, asked Wani in Kashmiri, “then why was your sister calling for Sartaj?”

Immediately Wani’s brother Sartaj produced his identity proof and the beating stopped. Army was looking for Sartaj Ahmad, Pakistan trained militant from the same area. “The firing continued for around thirty minutes,” said Wani.

HOWEVER, nobody in Bemdoora village knew who was trapped in the encounter till the news of Sartaj’s killing made headlines.

A small village of 200-households, dusky Bemdoora took its time to understand the significance of the shooting. It was

only after news of Burhan Wani’s killing started trending on the web.

“We heard gunshots but had no idea what was happening outside. There was a complete siege,” said Owais (name changed), a local resident. “Then all of a sudden news of Burhan’s killing came.”

As bodies of three militants killed in the encounter were evacuated, around fifty boys gathered and protested. “They fired teargas shell and pellets to chase us away,” said Owais. Two boys including Nawaz Ahmad Wani, received pellets.

“There was an encounter going on just a few meters away from my house and I had to rely on the internet for news,” Nawaz, a student, said. “It was frustrating.” He became first pellet victim of 2016 unrest

By dusk, Bemdoora was seething in anger, regret, and some unanswered questions. After bodies were shifted out, fear took over the hamlet.

Soon, people in thousands began marching towards Kokernag. Those who couldn’t go spent the night inside the lawn of a local mosque, mourning all night.

Next morning villagers fenced the spot where Burhan was killed. “It was done out of respect,” said Owais.

As the day passed, locals realised that everything is not alright.

“There was anger allover,” recalls Owais. “Words like mukhbir (informers), katil (murders) started making rounds.”

Even day third thousands visited the encounter site, thus escalating tension and fear factor. Days were manageable but nights were terrifying.

“Just a look at angry visitors and we could sense something terrible was going to happen,” admitted Zubair Ahmad.

The lurking danger forced the parents send their kids to outside villages. Those who stayed back would spend night inside mosque lawn.

Arrangements were made to serve rice and water to visitors on the fourth day of encounter.

But visitors had different plans. As people began coming from nearby villages, stalls offering food items outside the encounter site became first causality. “They damaged the stalls, destroying the provisions,” said Ahmad. “Soon they started shouting at us: Mukhbir (informers) Qatil (killers)”.

When the protestors reached the house where encounter took place, they started vandalising everything. “It was a huge crowd,” recalls Ahmad.

“We were helpless. They were in thousands. We just prayed for our own safety,” said Asif, another local.

On July 14, some masked youth appeared near the encounter site, shouting Allah-hu-Akbar and put heaps of dry grass inside the house and set it ablaze.

“Nobody dared to go outside. Everyone was afraid,” said Wani.

Within minutes Farooq Wani’s house was turned into ashes. The next stop for the masked youth was his apple orchard. The ten kanal apple orchards of Farooq and his brother, was axed with half-ripe crop still on braches. Then thousands of the people jumped inside a high-density orchard and started uprooting the apple trees.

The remains of the orchard.

The high-density orchard, hailed as a game change for Kashmir’s horticulture sector, was in the final stage of harvest when it was destroyed.

BACK in Bamdoora village, locals somehow managed to douse the flame after it destroyed one house.

But soon another crowd entered the village and set fire to nine houses, three cowsheds, and crop storehouses.

“It was terrifying,” recalls Wani. “One after another house around ours began to go up in smoke.”

Wani, who sat on a prayer mat, waiting for his house to catch fire, would shriek at every blast, caused by gas cylinders. “Fortunately our house was spared.”

This time, no one dared to save these houses, as angry crowd was circling the village, shouting slogans. “They would have burned the entire village had elders not begged for mercy,” recalls Wani.

MANZOOR Ahmad Wani, who was in Srinagar on July 8, managed to reach Bemdoora after fourteen day. “I walked all the way from Srinagar,” said Manzoor.

Before reaching the village a friend met Manzoor who told him that his house has been burned too. “I wanted to end my life as I had spent every penny in constructing that house,” said Manzoor, who lives one house behind encounter site.  “But the thought of my family stopped me.”

Manzoor, a father of six – four sons and two daughters – now lives in an unused shop. “I don’t know how we will survive this winter,” said Manzoor.

Most of the families whose houses were burnt that night either live with relatives or managed to rent a room or two.  “We couldn’t save anything except what we were wearing when we fled,” said Manzoor’s wife Kulsooma.

As the dust settled, villagers contributed amongst themselves and donated utensils, blankets and clothes for them. “No one else came to our help because of the stigma,” said Kulsooma. “We cannot say that we are from Bemdoora anywhere.”

WHEN Nasir Ahmad, a Class 12 student, went to appear in exams, he prayed that nobody should know his residence. But after a classmate gave him up, he was flooded with questions. “They began calling me Mukhbir (informer),” said Nasir.

WHEN Sameera Jan’s house was set on fire, she took her two toddler kids and began marching towards her parent’s house in a nearby village. “I went veiled fearing someone might recognize me,” said Sameera.

Her parents welcomed her warmly, but with a note of caution. “Stay inside with your kids. I don’t want anybody to see you. It is insulting for us,” said her mother. Sameera’s husband is related to Wani’s where Burhan was killed.

GUN roaring has been rare in Bemdoora. Last time it was in 1996, in which a local militant was killed. Its militant history starts and stops with a native militant who fled to Pakistan for arms training in 90’s but didn’t return. Mostly peasants with modest economic background, this hamlet lacks a modern fully concrete house.

As a vehicle passes through the dusky road, people sitting on the shop porches seem gazing, frightened.

As this reporter stopped his motor cycle near the cricket playing boys, the game was halted to see the stranger’s arrival. While JCB’s have resumed scattering boulders on the road to fill it new, asphalt would be laid for the better connectivity of this sleepy village with the world outside. But social connectivity will take more time.

(Names of some characters have been changed on request)     

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