Horror Hills

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Exposed directly to the extremity of conflict, Kashmir’s serious distressed border belts will take a long time to become normal. More than shells and bullet rains, apparently thawed now, the residents are keen to erase the memories of the 1990s. Faheem Mir visited Zamoor village in Uri to see how the turmoil locked homes forever

Jamia Masjid of the Zamoor Pattan village in Uri that is the epicentre of the population’s socio-religious life. KL Image: Faheem Mir

This village is called Zamoor Pattan. Located very close to the Line of Control (LoC) in Uri sector, visiting this place is not a cakewalk.

It is actually a cluster of small hamlets, surrounded by hills and the soldiers with abundant Deodar forests. A 33 km drive from Baramulla, one has to take the right turn at Gingal Bridge on the Jhelum Valley Road to reach the nine Mohalla style cluster. The names are interesting: Shukar-Ladi, Gugda, Ban’nd , Ba’adi, Khu-wi, Chudain, Baila, Traidyan and Bajad Mohalla.  By and large, most of the residents are engaged with agriculture. Their main occupation, however, depends on larger issues between Delhi and Islamabad.

Within minutes of arrival, a man in uniform reached the spot. He appeared almost from nowhere.

The family, according to Alif, was banned from leaving the village for months. That added to the deaths.

“‘Mera Naam Shair Khan Hai, Main Choki Afsar Houn. What are you doing here?” the nonchalant cop asked. “You are a stranger; you should have informed us before entering the village.”

Someone from the village had quickly passed the information on the arrival of a reporter to the Dhanni-Choolan police post.

“You are enquiring about those who disappeared years ago?” he disclosed the objectives of my visit too. After a pause, he added: “It is against norms to move in this border area without any special permission, at least you should inform us before visiting this village.” Then he left.

The village is fully exposed to the extremity of the Kashmir conflict, especially after the militancy broke out in 1990. Having barely 50 households, its more than a dozen residents have either disappeared in custody or were allegedly killed by the army. There are many widows and a good population of orphans.

As many as 20 have fled to the other side and are living as migrants in PaK ‘refugee’ camps. There are two structures which are locked from outside. Locals said it was a happy home of a school teacher whose family fled and he stayed back. Many years later, he died and the house is locked since then.

Seemingly, the majority of the people around are women, children or elderly. People communicate in very low tones, rarely question but answer fast. They seem very silent by nature. They hardly smile, not even if one cracks a joke. In this visibly sad village, a contrast to its environs, they walk so slowly as if they have no energy left. Almost everybody talks about 1990s.

Alif Din Taas says he is 70 years old. Living in a mud-and-wood house, Taas had married two women, Khazooran Begum and Nomani Begum, decades ago. “I am unfortunate enough that I have lost seven of my family members in 1990’s,” Tass said. “These included my wife Khazooran, three sons, a daughter, and two nephews.”

Alif Din whose two sons and a nephew were taken for a work in garrison and never returned. KL Image: Faheem Mir

It was November 1993, when Alif’s elder son Mohammad Iqbal, a ninth standard student was ready to go to school. “It was a cold morning and my son was about to go to school when a group of soldiers took my son,” Alif said. “They said they had some work in nearby camp.”

Most of the villages close to the border work for the army as porters. But the 1993 “work” was forced labour.

Alif and Khazooran Begum waited until the evening for their son. “In the evening I went to the camp to know about my son, but the guards denied me entry,” Alif said. “I came back and narrated my story to the nambardar and he accompanied me to the camp where the Major told us that Iqbal left the garrison hours before.” Taas wept, insisting that he never saw Iqbal.

After few more meetings failed in tracing Iqbal, the Major told the family not to visit the police station, Uri. The family, according to Alif, was banned from leaving the village for months. That added to the deaths.

“Army banned us to move outside and due to non-availability of medical services in the village, we lost Jalaluddin Tass. He was 20. I still feel the pain in which he spent his last days,” Alif said. “But I believe he was still fortunate. We could give him a decent burial.”

That was not the end of it. His other son Mohammad Ismail was a student of Degree College Sopore. On August 15, 1997, he and his cousin Jalaluddin (son of Raj Mohammad Tass) were taken by the same army camp. This time, the family was told that they have to deliver speeches on the Independence Day function in the camp. Nobody knows of the function and the speeches but everybody knows that the two cousin brothers never returned.

Alif’s daughter Akbar Jan died in a situation almost similar to Iqbal. After three sons and the daughter were lost in the conflict, Khazooran Begum, their mother, lost her mental balance. She finally breathed her last in a nearby hospital.

Then, Mohammad Din, a resident, said, people had only three options: to join militants, work with the military or to migrate. Fence sitting was no option.

Alif’s sister was married to Raj Mohammad Tass. “My sister Hajra had two sons and a daughter but the fate was not different,” Alif said. “Mohammad Yakoob Taas, 25, was the elder one. He was a government school teacher when army picked him up.”

Begum Jan, who literally has to struggle to talk, witnessed her two sons being taken by her parents-in-law to the other Kashmir after her teacher husband was killed. KL Image: Faheem Mir

After a few days of inquiry, Raj Mohammad was called up by police station Uri to identify a corpse recovered from Khath’thy Aali Bah’kaan mountains. “The face was disfigured but we identified Yakoob from the wristwatch, clothes and the purse. He had torture marks all over his body.”

After losing both his sons, Raj Mohammad and Hajra found it difficult to survive in Zamoor Pattan. They put their lives at risk and crossed LoC.

Then, Mohammad Din, a resident, said, people had only three options: to join militants, work with the military or to migrate. Fence sitting was no option.

The scale of panic that led to the migration cannot be assessed without talking to Begum Jan, teacher Yakoob’s widow.

“My mother-in-law took away my two sons along with her leaving me and her own daughter Sarwar Jan here on the mercy of Allah”, Begum Jan said. Now 45, Begum spent last two decades in a hope and desperation to meet her sons Mohammad Hanief and Manzoor Ahmad. Then, they were 8 and 6 years of age, respectively. “I was not aware that they were so much depressed and took the decision to shift to another side, when I woke up in that morning I found the four of my family members were missing.”

With all her cushions lost– her husband killed, her sons taken away by desperate grand-parents, she became an instant target of the counter-insurgency grid.

“I was tortured for almost a year by the army,” narrated Begum Jan. “I ate food properly after a year.” She cries on every single word. “Don’t ask me questions; you can never imagine what I faced.” But she said her hour-long sobs and cries will not matter. “Don’t worry, we are habitual about this.  Our lives are just confined to this village.” She has barely gone to Uri, a few times. “I often wake at night with an uneasy sense of choking and being throttled.”

Begum lives in Baila. She lives with her sister in law, her slain husband’s sister. Sarwar Jan said her kids are too much attached to their aunt.

A slain teacher’s widow is destitute, dependent on her relatives for two ends meet. “I do not have bread, how can I go to the court?” she said when asked to seek remedies from the court or other institutions.

Begum still lives in the hope that she will meet her sons, one day. But so far, she has not been able to trace any of her relatives. Even the villagers who have gone to PaK have failed in tracing them. She knows people go to PaK through Uri but does not know how. She has no future plans. She does not smile. But she has that monotonous dream, of meeting her sons.

There are half-widows, too. Mukadam Hussain is 60 years old and for more than two decades, she is waiting for her husband. On August 15, 1997, morning, she alleged, her husband Ahmad Shah along with their son Nazir, and a neighbour Maqbool Khan were picked up by the army in Shukar Ladi locality. They had finished the breakfast when they were taken.

Muqadam Begum whose labourer husband and son were taken for some work in the camp but never returned. KL Image: Faheem Mir

“All the three were professional labourers and innocents,” Hussain said. “Few soldiers arrived at our home and took the three with them, telling us that they have some work pending to arrange August 15, function,” she remembers.

She said when she visited the camp and inquired about them “the Major told me that they will be free after a few more hours of work.

They waited for her family’s return until next morning but they didn’t come.

“For enquiring again, we visited the camp and the Major shouted at us, saying they have crossed the LoC to get trained,” Hussain remembers. “If you try to report to the police ‘I will burn you alive with your remaining family’ while pointing towards a kerosene tank.”

Hussain said she and her children were allegedly imprisoned in their own house for almost a year. “No one from our relatives had permission to visit us. They imposed a total ban on our movement; we were confined to do work only in our own village”

A year later, someone from Hussain’s relatives reported the incident to police station Uri. “Police visited our village but nothing happened,” Hussain said.

What happened on August 15, 1997, in the Uri’s border outposts is not known. But what is clear is that the rival armies were frequently pounding each other. The tensions were routine but the worst happened in the belt on August 24, when army lost Major Dipender Singh and a soldier in Pakistan firing.

Lt Gen Krishan Pal, the Commander of the 15 Corps told Kashmir Times that though Pakistanis have been firing at Indian position since Independence Day, the escalation level was scaled up, recently. “General Pal confirmed that three civilians lost their lives to Pakistani firing on August 16, and the civilian population had to suffer a lot,” the newspaper reported on August 25, 1997. “But he denied that the affected population has migrated from the area.”

A day later, on August 25, Army took a media team for a briefing to Uri for the worst escalation in the sector, they found the tensions were closer to Lal Pul (Kaman Bridge) belt and not in the rare of it where Zamoor Pattan is located.

Unlike many others, Hussain along with Rashida Begum, mother of Maqbool Khan, are regularly visiting Srinagar to participate in peaceful APDP sit-ins. Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) is a gradually evolved common cause group that recently got Norway’s Rafto award for the peaceful struggle for seeking whereabouts of their family members.

Sitting absent mindedly in her single-storied home, every knock forces Rashida to rush towards the door. She has forgotten many things, excepting her frequent visits to the camp.

“We were asked to stay away from the army camp or otherwise (the army threatened) they will interrogate us,” she remembers. Two decades down the line, she still hopes that Maqbool will return and she will spend her remaining life with him.

Her neighbours said Rashida is gradually losing her mental balance and occasionally she starts calling her son loudly. “Her husband Mohammad Hussain Khan died after a few years of his son’s disappearance,” Syed Lal Hussain said. “The aged parents of the victims of disappearances usually sing Gojri folk songs giving vent to their anguish and pain.”

Residents said there are 11 cases in which males disappeared. One of them is Mohammad Qasim Shah son of Sikander Shah.

Qasim was Imam in the village mosque. “Army took him when he was coming back home after offering Fajr, the wee hours prayers, I think some 24 years ago,” remembers Alif. “Similarly Afzal Bhatti was picked up from his home for some forced work and never returned back.”

Yakoob Sood was a ninth class student when army allegedly picked him from his residence on 15 August 1997.

His brother Hakimuddin Sood said he was too young to remember the details but those were “horrifying days”. “Our ailing mother still hopes to see her son again”. Hakim said.

The dominant feeling in the village is to somehow forget what is so hugely on their ‘random memory’. The village has property worth lakhs of rupees that people who fled to the other side have left behind. Nobody has touched it. The property, after all, is not the priority. It is still life that is all the more important.

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