Close Encounters

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News of death and destruction are apparently the only two by-products of a gun battle between rebels and the army. One encounter paves way for another and the show goes on. Muhammad Younis visits the families rendered homeless by encounters to tell a story that usually does not even figure in the footnotes of conflict

In extreme north-west of South Kashmir’s Pulwama district, lay a series of low mountains. One behind the other; separated by small valleys. Torrents with boulder beds cleave through them. Among the oak and pine trees, the sparsely found corrugated tin roofs of the houses climb up assiduously to make the human habitations thick and easily noticeable at the mountain tops.

Through the rugged but a cool and beautiful terrain, one needs to go deep inside the forests to locate Bahmnoo, a small village, almost 25 kms from Pulwama town. A little deep and up, one lands in Chanebanjar Mohalla.

Chanebanjar was in news on July 3, after an encounter between rebels and the counter-insurgent forces broke out. The two day gun battle killed three local militants. Jahangir Khandey, one of the two militants, reportedly fought for 25 hours, had remained nothing more than a block of cinder. Kifayat, his accomplice, who hailed from the same place, is survived by his wife and a little baby girl.

It is the time for Zuhar prayers. Azaan is over and an elderly person, donning a white skullcap, standing at the outer door of a big concrete mosque, with blue green windows, is loudly calling people for prayers. There are not many people around. Only a minuscule number, snap weird glances at every stranger passing by.

“It wasn’t always so; our Masjid had a microphone, but they stole it too. Now for the last couple of weeks, he (the muezzin) calls people like this,” Mudasir, a local boy, who is one among a little few, spotted around, dares to open up about the government forces, who had, on that particular day, cordoned off the place. “They didn’t even spare a religious place… they took away the carpets, lamps,….”

From the mosque, a murky street, hemmed in with the burnt leaves, cascading down the trees, leads you up to the main location, where seven houses were burnt to ashes. “This place has only 13 households. More than half no longer live here,” says Mudasir.  “It’s like a place of wolves at night. People are so terrified to venture out.”

Ali Muhammad Chopan desolately stares up at a cracked wall of the structure that is the only standing item of his home. As his chin is up and out, a few white hairs stick thinly out of his black facial tufts. His little son, Asif, is busy piling up the bricks strewn around. Ali frequently cautions his son to watch his step as the walls could collapse over him.

“I’m not in a position to do anything,” Ali, a labourer, said. “Two weeks have passed, and I am not able to bring this wall down. My spine is like broken.”

Ali will manage his survival. But he is more concerned, he says, about the owners of other two burnt houses, who both are widows. Fatima Banu, 45, wife of late Ghulam Qadir Chopan, has five children to take care of. Her eldest son, who is 22, is labouring to meet ends of his family, which he is “barely able” to. The second one is Noori Begum, wife of late Muhammad Ramzaan.

“I am a lot worried about how they will be able to cope with this situation when they don’t even have a roof over the heads,” Ali sighs.

A little up, lies scattered around debris of other houses, who Ali says belonged to village’s most well off persons. Pointing towards the broken tiles, and the mangled stainless steel taps, he says, “They are of the highest quality. Only one bathroom cost them Rs 3 lakh, and just calculate the worth of other things, he had incurred loss of.”

Their homes were smouldering a day after the encounter was over, for lack of road connectivity. “At a safer distance, everyone wailing and snivelling, we watched our houses all blazed up,” Ali said. It was early morning breeze that blew through the woods, on day third, when residents, risked their lives, came closer and extinguish the fire. “If we had not doused it by using water motors, the winds could have spread the fire and engulfed the entire Mohalla.”

Losses were beyond the fires. “If you take a tour around, not a single house you will find without some sort of damage. Windows, and doors were broken, walls were cracked. Almost in every house something precious has gone missing: golden ornaments, refrigerators, TV sets,” Ali said, insisting on every single word. Ali is of the view that the tactics of Indian army in encounters reveal a cunning propaganda that could be in the backdrop of these operations.

Around 55 kms away lives Saimoh village, to the east of Pulwama. Here, Abdul Rashid Mir is exhausted digging the foundation of a new house. His face is smothered with grime. His moustaches are sandy. At the corners of his mouth, his spit has coagulated into little white gobs.

Mir is one of four residents, whose houses went up in smoke in a similar encounter in which Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, a 30 year old militant of Hizb ul Mujahideen, and his 15 year old comrade Faizan were killed. Till now, the latter is believed to be the youngest militant killed so far.

Under the sweltering heat, for last two months, Mir is living in a makeshift house of corrugated tin sheets. Before that, he and his “nomadic family”, along with other families rendered homeless by the gun-battle, were staying in the houses of their neighbours.. Only he has returned by now; the rest have not.

“For how long, my daughters would have stayed in the houses of others? Times have changed,” he alludes towards the societal norms, as he digs his spade into the earth. “I was just waiting for it (makeshift house) to complete to bring them back.”

Mir has three daughters. Two unmarried; one married, with her family too living with him. “Hope they soon see a new house if not as spacious as the one, they earlier lived in,” Mir said. “It is unbearable to rest in this tin shed during these scorching days.”

But what Mir will not forget is the support of the people, mainly the Sikh population, living in the neighbourhood.  “Along with the rest of our neighbours, the Sikh brothers collected money for us… more than a lakh rupees; 20 thousand they (Sikhs) provided from their own pocket,” Mir said.

Mir is paid daily visits by his Sikh neighbours, inquiring whether he needs anything. “I’m indebted to them for eternity. They are a real example of neighbourhood. I don’t know how I will be able to return this favour?”

As Mir goes inside his hot tin shed to quench his thirst, he recalls the happenings of that night of the encounter. It was not Mir’s house, in which the militants were hiding; rather it was that of Ghulam Muhammad, his elder brother. But to “deny militants a chances to take asylum in the adjacent houses or beat a hasty retreat”, soldiers first “bombarded the three houses in the vicinity, and then that of Muhammad.”

At 9 pm that night, a bullet shot was heard in the area. It was at 12 pm, when a knock had happened at the outer door of Muhammad’s house. Three militants, including Sabzar, were at the door. They had asked the family for a glass of water.

“As they got in, it was only 15 minutes later that three army jeeps and a Casper started making rounds outside the gate of our courtyard. Leaving the militants in my house, I along with my family evacuated in hurry, and took asylum in the next house of my brother,” says Muhammad.

For the whole night, the Mir clan could not sleep. “Cornered in the house, we were terrified. The chugging of more and more vehicles arriving was heard outside,” Mir said. “I understood that an encounter was about to happen, and my house was going to be blasted, but didn’t know along with it, they (army) will bring down other three also.”

It was in the last quarter of night, when even Mirs’ family (Mushtaq Ahmad and Muhammad Yousuf, Mir’s younger brother and cousin) were asked to leave their houses. Because of fear, Mir couldn’t think of saving anything from the house, rather he with rest of his family ran for their lives only. “When you see bullets showering around, witty, how great you may be, your mind lapses into inertia and irresolution.”

But it was only when Mir reached to a safer distance, away from the encounter site, that he remembered something, he believed, more worthy than his life to save.

“We had made to our relative’s house, when I remembered that the gold ornaments of all my daughters are left back there in the house. I expeditiously retraced my steps to take it, but once I reached, there was nothing to see, more than raging red flames that had engulfed my home… my sweet home,” says Mir; his eyes all welled up. “Militants were not holed up in my house, what law of the world asks you to deprive others from their hearth and home,” says Yasmeen Rashid, Mir’s elder daughter, in a huff. Holding her little baby, she is busy looking through the debris of her house to locate any clue of the jewelry of her and that of her two little sisters. “I don’t know whether somebody stole them, or they melted down underneath. But I am desperate to find something, even a small ring.”

The net value of all the ornaments has been around nine lakh rupees. “I had spent the entire earnings of my life to buy them, because I have no son to leave my earnings for,” says Mir.

Mir is, rather was, doing a business of walnuts. Before the encounter, he had purchased four tons of walnuts from the people while huckstering throughout the villages of the area. “There were 60 sacks of walnuts, stuffed up to the brim, on the veranda of my house.  Those too got burnt down,” he says as he shows this reporter the burnt heap of walnuts, strewn across the veranda.

Mir is all up to brave the odds, but the only thing he rues about now is the academic documents of her three daughters that had got burned. Yasmeen has done graduation, the middle one is studying in first year of graduation, and the younger one is in twelfth class. “All their documents, including the degree certificates, marks sheets, state subjects and rest are in that heap,” he signals towards a huge pile of burnt things in the courtyard.

A distance of 20 kms from Saimoh, towards the south in Bijbehara, the road leads to Shopian, which branches off right from the highway, after a five km drive, lands you in Arwani, a village falling in of Kulgam district. Passing over the bridge of Veshaw Nallah meandering through the village, the immediate rutted street in the right, after taking a couple of turns, would ushers one into the courtyard of Malik’s Residence.

A few weeks back, this courtyard had a big traditional house. Inches away from it, was an impressive modern structure, white stuccoed concrete building, sitting contiguous to the traditional one. Now, there is nothing except a small hut, made of bricks, grouted with sticky black-turned-white earth.

Inside the hut, Muhammad Shafi Malik, used to be the owner of the first two, is trying to stave off the scorching sun, which he is not able to bear for more than a few minutes. As soon as his head gets exposed to sun, it swims and aches terribly.

On June 16, the recent encounter which took place at Eidgah Mohalla of Arwani left four houses razed to ground. In one of them, belonging to Malik, were holed up three local militants, including Junaid Matoo, a Lashkar-e-Toiba militant. They were killed by the mortar shells in which the houses were decimated. The rest two houses became victims of “collateral damage”.

That day, Malik, along with his family were “beaten to pulp” by the police and army for sheltering militants. Malik received many hits of the rifle butts on his head, which is the reason of his present health condition. “Finding even my old mother being manhandled, I desired to die. I didn’t want to come out… wanted to get burned inside.”

In a blue Khan-dress, Malik said he does not know who donated it to me. “Everything in my houses had turned into black dust,” he heaves a long sigh. “Even this hut that we are sitting in, was constructed by others. I am left with nothing of my own.”

After the devastating encounter, residents managed to collect Rs 1.5 lakh for each one of the residents rendered homeless. “That Rs 1.5 lakh is the sole property I have right now. And I have to buy new clothes, the provisions, bedding… everything new… and also I have to see whether I can build a little structure for my family,” Malik said.

Malik’s family comprises seven people, including his 60 year old mother, his wife and daughter, his sister and her children. “All of us can not live in this single room,” he says as he measures the length of the room with his hand. “When we sleep at night, we are not even able to stretch our legs fully.”

In 1995, when Malik was only 20 years old, his father, Ghulam Nabi, after making a house for him, joined militancy and was killed. “It was for the same reason that though we lived in a new house, I didn’t bring the old one down. Because it was the only thing my father had left for me. It reminded me about him. It bore testimony to my orphaned childhood, when I would seek presence of my father in the empty corridors of that house,” Malik says walking down the memory lane.

Half a decade ago, after Malik’s meagre saving of many years had finally made a sum of Rs 20 lakhs, he decided to lay foundation of a new house for his son Suhail Islam Malik, like his own father had done for him. The new house took whole three years to complete. But before Malik would have inaugurated it, one day, Suhail, then pursuing his graduation and was in first year. Later, it  turned out that he had also joined the militant ranks. Years after, he too was killed in an encounter at Soura in Srinagar.

“It had taken me three years of rigorous work to build the house in which I wanted to spend time with my son, “Malik said. “To give my son, what my father had left me bereft of. But I didn’t know that Suhail was also destined to take the path of his grandfather – to leave me alone. I am left with only memories now.” The two houses, Malik said, were making him think that his father and son were still around. “But now my delusions have ended forever.”

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