A Grave Issue

Apparently to prevent mass gathering at militant funerals, security grid has abandoned the practice of transferring foreign militant corpses to residents for burial. Instead, they are being dispatched to distant places. In wake of the policy shift, Bilal Handoo visits some of these spots to report the trauma that managers of these cemeteries have accumulated over the years

Manzoor Khan standing in Chehal’s graveyard that houses 130 unmarked graves. Pic: Bilal Handoo
Manzoor Khan standing in Chehal’s graveyard that houses 130 unmarked graves. (Pic: Bilal Handoo)

He doesn’t want to recall how he buried those charred, limbless, disfigured and blood-dripping corpses during those haunting days and nights of nineties. But once he overcomes reluctance, he turns rapt to recount how they would turn up in packs in his hamlet to make him to “shroud their sins”. They kept no calendar. Bags would arrive in snow, rain, sunshine, forcing him to do the usual: prepare graves, bury the nameless.

Today, men in uniform don’t turn up with unknown bodies in Baramulla’s Kichama village. But that hardly consoles Ghulam Mohammad Bhat. All these years, this labourer in his mid-forties has been trying to live a normal life. But he fails and behind his failure is his inability to awash those gory images of the slain from his mind.

Body bags began arriving  in 1994 spring. Then a young man, Bhat, remembers  how army  first brought five “foreign militants” to bury atop the village hillock in a hushed-haste manner. But the villagers sought police intervention to take bodies from army’s custody and gave them proper burial. But what were thought as “foreign militants” shortly turned out Kashmiri youth. “One could tell from their faces that they were Kashmiris rather than Afghan militants as army, police claimed,” says Bhat, sitting in an orchard full of graves near his house.

Whenever unknown bodies were brought to Kichama for burial, the villagers were told they were “foreign militants”. But the villagers shortly learned that not everyone they were burying was “foreign”. They were locals killed in different encounters, Bhat says. “We knew it because among those unknown bodies, we also received around dozen slain local villagers — who had either disappeared or detained. It was then we realised, we have been chosen to be shareholders in something we were never part of.”

Kichama wanted to resist the move, but could not. In simmering silence, they kept doing as directed. But at times, says Bhat, it would badly hurt. They were repeatedly getting exposed to graphic details of those disfigured bodies. It freaked out Bhat to bury those charred bodies of “foreign militants” brought from encounter sites. “Some limbless, some headless,” he says. “It wasn’t possible to establish their identity.”

So they tied clothes, amulets of the slain with trees for the display of the grieving families who would turn up lamenting in the village. In those tear-jerking moments, those signs helped many families find traces of their dear ones in Kichama. One such family came from Srinagar, 22 years ago.

Weeks after Kichama began burying the unknown dead, the villagers spotted two abandoned bodies with torture marks at one isolated spot in the village. They were quick to sense why those bodies were dumped with them. They did the usual. But days later, sleepy ambiance of Kichama was shattered by the shrieking family of Srinagar. They had come seeking whereabouts of their missing sons who had left home to buy jewellery for their to-be-bride sister, but never returned.

“Upon seeing the clothes tied to trees, the family almost fainted and pleaded us to exhume the duo for identification,” Bhat says. On family’s insistence, graves were opened. They indeed housed missing sons of the family. They took the bodies back to Srinagar to bury them near home. “That day,” says Bhat, “the entire Kichama broke down over the scene when the crest-fallen family drove their sons home, dead.” And then five years later, the villagers relieved the trauma.

On June 23, 1999, three young men—Nawakadal’s Ghulam Mohammad Mattoo, Lal Bazaar’s Javed Ahmed Shah and Nowhatta’s Nazir Ahmed Gilkar—were cut short by Special Task Force (STF) while returning from a marriage party at Soura. They were dragged to police station Soura where SHO Rashid Billa along with his six accomplices allegedly tortured them ruthlessly before killing them. Two of the three were taken to Kichama while one was found floating in Dal Lake.

An elder pointing towards an unmarked grave
An elder pointing towards an unmarked grave. (Pic: Bilal Bahadur)

Five days later, the families visited Kichama where they exhumed the bodies and got them home for reburial. But it never stopped with that, Bhat says. “Each body would leave its own trail of impact in the village – first bury them and then exhume them.”

By 2002, Kichama’s two ‘Martyr’ graveyards housing 235 unknown bodies ran out of the space. Bodies were still brought, but the villagers refused to bury them, as they didn’t want sprawling cemeteries surrounding them.

In face of villagers’ firm stand, it is said, a cop from nearby Chehal village asked his seniors to take bodies to his village. And with that began the tale of another graveyard housing  mass, unmarked graves.

Chehal, 7 km away from Kichama, began receiving bodies  in 2003. Till 2007, around 130 marked graves containing 203 bodies had dotted the graveyard. The gravedigger, Atta Mohammad Khan, buried all these bodies termed as “foreign militants” by police, army and paramilitary. Atta’s only son, Manzoor Khan, witnessed how the forces would bring those bullet-torn bodies dubbed as “foreign” for burial in Chehal . “But only 10 were foreign militants,” Manzoor says, “and the remaining were all Kashmiris.”

While accompanying his father as a boy to help in burial, Manzoor says, he would often return home troubled. “I can’t describe the details of those bodies,” says Atta’s son, while offering prayers at his father’s grave. Atta Mohammad who passed away lately after battling with ill health is buried at stone’s throw from the unknown bodies he buried. “Total 20 bodies were exhumed and identified during those five years. Fourteen of them were from Srinagar, five from Baramulla and one from Chandoosa. These dead bodies were taken by their family members and were buried in their respective native graveyards. Only six graves bear name plaques here.”

While burying the unknown bodies, both Atta and his son saw the “foreign militant” claims getting busted on many occasions, like in April 2005 when four “foreign militants” were brought to Chehal for burial. Within days, they were identified as locals.

It was a villager from Boniyar who saw the photograph of dead bodies inside the Police Station Uri and identified two among them. They were the locals from Baramulla, Mohammad Sidiq and Ashfaq Ahmad. The other two were identified as Chattabal’s Mohammad Rafiq and Basant Bagh’s Feroz Ahmad Bhat. “They were identified by their families and taken to respective places after exhumation,” Manzoor recalls.

By 2007, the bodies stopped arriving in Chehal after it met the Kichama’s fate: running out of space. After that, Manzoor says, dead bodies were dumped in ditches in the woods of Baramulla and Kupwara. But the lull ended when the ‘grave’ focus returned to the region after Lashkar chief Abu Qasim’s massive funeral triggered a change in Tirkanjan’s sleepy Baden hamlet.

Ghulam Mohammad Bhat sitting in an orchard of unmarked graves in Kichama
Ghulam Mohammad Bhat sitting in an orchard of unmarked graves in Kichama. (Pic: Bilal Handoo)

In Kashmir, the State Human Rights Commission has already confirmed identity of 574 bodies of as locals among total 2,730 bodies found in unmarked graves. This officially  dismissed the “foreign militant” claims of forces. What further dented these claims were the findings of the local rights group that exhumed 53 bodies across Kashmir in unmarked graves, and found 49 in them civilians.

Besides, a pattern has been found in unmarked, mass graves of Kashmir with that of other places. It is already known that when mass graves were spotted in Iraq, the relatives of those who have been missing since a Shiite uprising in 1991 drew in droves to the sites. They identified the bodies though clothing, glasses or other personal effects — something which also provided a vital clue to the parents of disappeared persons in Kashmir. Chechnya, many say, was no different from Kashmir when it comes to mass graves. Like in Kichama, reports suggest, Chechen mass graves also housed mutilated bodies. Kashmir even found resemblance with Bosnia, where mass graves were  also found containing more civilians than insurgents.

Lately in Tirkanjan’s Baden hamlet, the villagers froze the fresh attempt of “foreign” burial. The hushed activity had started well before Abu Qasim’s funeral would make the security apparatus to send “foreign” bodies in this sleepy hamlet concentrated with heavy forces.

It was during the last Ramadhan, when police brought the bodies of two “foreign militants” to Baden, 30 kms from Baramulla. They were supposedly killed by forces at LoC. That day, Mushtaq Ahmad, a grocer, was preparing to break his fast like others. But once the bodies were brought, he along with the villagers decided to be the part of “pious act”.

Four freshly unmarked graves in Badan. Pic: Bilal Handoo
Four freshly unmarked graves in Badan. (Pic: Bilal Handoo)

The bodies were buried near the Rest House away from habitation. Mushtaq shortly buried another two “foreign” bodies. After four unmarked graves cropped up, the villagers were cautioned by a local human rights group: “You never know whom you are burying!” The rights group had suddenly alerted the ‘simpleton’ villagers. “We thought,” says Mushtaq, “we shouldn’t end up becoming the new Kichama or Chehal.”

Amid this lingering sense in Baden, one high ranking police official posted in north Kashmir says that there is a well thought out method behind burying the “foreign militants” in the region.

“It isn’t possible for us to send every other militant arriving in Kashmir for Jihad to their homes in body bags,” the officer says. “Besides we can’t allow to make signpost of these militant burial spots.”

But there are after-thoughts in these dusky hamlets. They have instances to justify their new thought process.

One such instance is of a man from Chandanwari, Baramulla. Much before Kichama, Chehal and Baden would attain a ‘grave’ fame, Ali Akbar Khan from Chandanwari found 5 dead bodies lying on the river shore one fine day. It was 1991 and not many unmarked graves had dotted the north. As Khan began making preparations for the burial, he was left shell-shocked upon glimpsing his own son, Bashir Ahmad Khan, among the slain. Khan’s son was picked up by the army a week before.

Of late, Baden’s revolt against burying the three “foreign” killed in Hajin sent cops burying the “kill” not far away from a police station. Mushtaq, the grocer, says, behind the reluctance was the sense imparted by the rights group: “Just think over it, why should forces take their kill from south to bury them in north Kashmir?” The question was grave and was raised at a time when three Kupwara men were reported missing. While getting the gist, perhaps, the villagers avoid becoming the dots between Baden and Kupwara.

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