Through my lens

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Once the news of Burhan Wani’s killing in Kokernag was confirmed, everyone wanted to visit Tral. Faisal Khan, a Srinagar based photojournalist, writes how he managed to reach Burhan’s home and cover his funeral

On July 8, 2016, after finishing my work at my office in Srinagar, I visited my Khaala’s (aunt) residence in Awantipora, who passed away in January. I was accompanied by my sister and cousins in my car.

At 5:30 pm we reached our destination. After taking rest we were served tea and biscuits. A while later I received a whatsapp message on my mobile phone about an encounter in Kokernag area. After half-an-hour rumours started doing rounds that popular militant commander Burhan Wani is trapped in Bamdoora village with two other militants.

However, I didn’t take it seriously given the frequency of rumours about Burhan earlier. But when a friend, also a reliable source called me and said, “Be ready to cover Burhan’s funeral as he has been killed.”

Before he hung up he told me to check my whatapp for a confirmation picture of Burhan’s dead body. Initially, I thought it was some other militant resembling Burhan.

I called my fellow photojournalist in Srinagar asking them to confirm the news. But they too brushed it aside by saying it is a rumour. Once again I was relaxed.

But when I heard slogans outside my aunt’s residence I got alarmed. Then another message popped up on my mobile phone which read: ‘DGP police K Rajindera has confirmed the killing of Burhan Wani in Kokernag encounter’.

Immediately I started looking for my camera and laptop, which luckily I had carried with me this time.

The mood on the streets and weather seemed to be in sync as it started to rain and thunder. Then I got a message about possible suspension of mobile connectivity. It worried me the most. I did my best to contact my friends. First call I made was to a fellow senior photojournalist Waheed Mirza, who lives in Tral. “Entire Tral town is out on the streets,” he said in a quivering voice.

Waheed insisted that I must reach Tral immediately as he was not sure how situation will turn out in coming hours. But the situation was already tense so I decided to call my colleagues in Srinagar instead.

I informed Dar Yasin and Umer Mehraj (Associate Press), Bilal Bahadur (Kashmir Life), and Umer Asif (Kashmir News Service), about the happenings in Tral. I told them about my location in Awantipora, thinking mobiles will be suspended any minute. I told them to pick me up when they travel to Tral.

My cousins asked for Burhan’s pictures as they knew I might have got them by now. First I refused, but then with a heavy heart I showed them pictures of Burhan’s body. All the while I was trembling as I was desperate to see Burhan’s face myself. I wanted to see the person who gave sleepless nights to entire security grid for over six-years. For the rest of the night I stayed awake waiting for daybreak. Almost every surrounding mosque played songs in praise of Burhan.

In the middle of the night I started packing my equipment as I thought I might miss Burhan’s funeral if I start late. All of a sudden slogans stopped as the call for morning prayers was made from the loudspeakers.

With it my heart began to beat faster. Apart from a photojournalist, I was a Kashmiri too. After offering prayers, I waited for my friends to come and pick me. But given the situation outside, their chances of reaching here seemed impossible. So I took my bag and decided to walk all the way to Tral by myself. But suddenly I heard loud honking outside my aunt’s house. It was my friends from Srinagar who had come to pick me up. There was a space reserved for me on a bike. As we zoomed past lush green fields I saw men and women marching towards Tral on foot.

The entire road from Awantipora to Tral was just declared free from military occupation. As we reached near Tral town, we could hear slogans in praise of Burhan.

As we reached Shareefabad village where Burhan lived, we saw thousands had already swarmed in from across Kashmir to participate in his funeral. We straight away rushed to Burhan’s house where his corpse was kept on the veranda.

The house painted white was standing tall, prepared to bear loss of one of its famous pillars.

As there was no space on veranda, a friend helped me get on the terrace. Finally I took out my cameras and looked at Burhan’s face thought it. But, despite being a professional photojournalist, I couldn’t control my emotions and started weeping like a child. Wrapped in a brown blanked Burhan seemed in deep slumber.

My eyes searched for Burhan’s father Muzaffar Wani and his mother but they were untraceable among thousands of mourners. The wish to meet Burhan’s father remained unfulfilled.

Suddenly people started making preparations to take Burhan’s body for burial to the local Eidghah.

Finally Burhan’s body was lifted by mourners amid tears and freedom slogans. I clicked some pictures and quickly jumped from the veranda and reached to the main entrance of the house. I was climbing on the walls, sometimes on the slabs and sometimes inside the houses in order to get a perfect shot. It took very long time for Burhan’s body to reach Eidghah as thousands waited for a glimpse of his face.

Burhan’s body was kept right in front of the pulpit of Eidghah. I too climbed one of the walls to click pictures when suddenly I saw a forces convoy pass by. All of a sudden thousands of people started chasing them with stones.

A masked guy who was standing with me said they were sent to monitor the situation, so nothing to fear.

Within minutes the Eidghah filled to its maximum capacity. Announcements were made on the loudspeakers that his funeral will be held at 9:30 am. The first funeral was held on time. I was standing on the wall with other photojournalists. When I looked through my camera’s view finder, I realised my ultra wide lens was not enough to fit the entire assembly in a single frame. It was a mammoth gathering by all standards.

After the funeral people, especially women, pleaded organizers that they should be allowed to have one last glimpse of Burhan’s face. Quickly a line was formed and people started walking past Burhan’s body one by one.

We decided to leave the Eidghah as we were worried about the situation in other parts of Kashmir. But it was not easy to reach the main entrance as there were over one lakh people in between. After lots of efforts I managed to cross the Eidghah and took rest in a local park where I met my friend Gowhar Mirza.

He told me that locals had made arrangements for dinner for over 15000 people who were camping in Tral since last night.

I knew my wish to click pictures of militants will come true at Burhan’s house as they will come to pay tribute to their commander. I stationed myself on a slope near the Eidghah hoping they will come soon. But that didn’t happen.

All of a sudden there was hue and cry from every side and I understood that militants are on their way towards Burhan’s residence. It seemed entire Shareefabad locality was roaring with cries and slogans.

When I looked around I saw women clapping as if welcoming the militants. They were now within my lenses reach. Finally my dream of clicking a militant’s picture was going to come true. I was excited.

Suddenly I saw two young boys on a motorcycle. The one riding it had covered his face with a black piece of cloth, he was wearing black trousers. The guy in the back seat had broad shoulders; I still remember his long hairs, and green shirt. He had his face covered with kifaya. As the bike reached where I was standing, they looked in my direction, as if they knew we are covering the event. Later I was told they were Sabzar Ahamd Bhat and Zakir Rashid Bhat aka Musa.

I was confused whether to click pictures or watch them. When I finally positioned my camera to take some pictures, boys from the crowd pleaded me not to do so. I listened to them and put my camera down.

In perfect rhythm people started chanting “Sabzaar, Sabzaar Zindabad”. Within minutes both the militants left the spot.

After that we packed our cameras and started planning our trip back to Srinagar. On our way back my photojournalist friend Dar Yasin reminded us about other two militants who were killed with Burhan. They were Sartaj and Parvez.

We decided to visit the residence of Parvez in Noorpora village of Tral. Everywhere we looked there were people crying for Burhan. I saw a number of Sikh’s weeping their hearts out for Burhan. They were stopping people and offering them refreshments. Local shopkeepers had almost emptied there shops by distributing cold drinks, biscuits, chips to the visitors. I have covered a number of militant funerals before but this one was altogether a different experience.

When we reached Nurpura village, there were thousands of people, marching towards Burhan’s village. We couldn’t reach Parvez’s house as there were people everywhere.

Then we decided to leave towards Srinagar as situation had already turned tense. By now almost every road was guarded by government forces, which earlier were deserted.

The preparations anti-India demonstrations had already started. As reached took the highway smoke of burnt tyres was billowing from every direction, people vent their anger by blocking the entry points and challenging men in uniform.

I was desperate to transfer Burhan’s funeral pictures on my laptop, which was still at my aunt’s house.

As the situation by now has changed completely, my seniors advised me not to risk my life and visit my aunt’s house in Awantipora. But I did not budge.

As we reached near Awantipora police station we were stopped by a huge contingent of forces. Given the situation we considered ourselves lucky when they let us pass.

Another check point was placed near my aunt’s house by paramilitary forces. As we reached near the check point, policemen posted their waved their hands, asking us not to come near. But I desperately wanted to get my laptop so I took the risk. A bearded Kashmiri policeman told me not to move further as CRPF men there are on a rampage. They had beaten a boy a few moments back for crossing the check point.

When I kept pleading he allowed me to move from the back side of the road. When I reached near my aunt’s house, I saw stones and teargas shells raining from all sides. I had to climb a few walls to reach my aunt’s house. They were worried about my safety but I quickly took my laptop and left. Before I climbed the wall, I waved at my sister and cousins, knowing I won’t be seeing them sometime soon.

As we resumed our journey towards Srinagar, CRPF men started chasing protesters by firing live ammunition. We took a different route to avoid direct contact with them. However, the route we took passed from near notorious Victor Force camp. For at least fifteen minutes we travelled through mud and water. To our surprise, our mobiles started working as we reached near the army garrison. As soon we left the camp area our mobiles once again fell silent.

As we reached near the highway we saw a huge Reliance tower placed in the middle of the road. I still wonder how they managed to uproot such a big iron structure!

We were finally on our way to Srinagar when Bilal Bahadur’s motorcycle ran out of fuel. The next hurdle was a barricade placed by protestors on the road. They didn’t let us pass unless we share pictures of Burhan’s funeral with them.

But with no internet connectivity available to share pics, they started taking pictures of our camera screen as we shuffled through pictures. Luckily a petrol pump was just round the corner, but it was shut. When the owner of the pump came to know that we are coming back from Burhan’s funeral, he gave us petrol. Once back in Srinagar, I quickly transferred pictures on my laptop and sent them to out Turkey desk, for which I was work. One hundred days after Burhan’s killing, finally my dream of meeting his father came true. I was back in Tral, but this time it was entirely different.

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