When a rebel is killed, the loss and celebration on the two sides of the ideological divide is the routine. But what happens to the family? Shams Irfan sat with Sabzar’s mother to understand why she spent 11 hours with a bullet-ridden corpse in her arms
On May 27, 2017, Jana Begum, a tall lady with broad shoulders and athletic frame, almost melts in a corner of her modest kitchen, as her deep-grey eyes stay fixed at the blue iron-gate, cemented neatly between hollow-blocks.
Like the rest of her single-storey house, and its boundary wall, this gate was constructed by her multi-talented son Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, 32, a few weeks before he joined militancy on April 14, 2015.
Since then Jana, in her early fifties, regularly gazed at the gate from her kitchen window, as if it will flung open and Sabzar will walk in. “He had promised he will come back,” Jana would often think. “I am sure he will keep his promise.”
At 3:30 pm, Jana’s heart began to beat fast as the sound of slogans praising her son’s valour and sacrifice began nearing. She could also hear young boys walking in unison, a few broken hearts following them, a few more promising to follow him only if he wakes up, once again. But Jana kept her fingers crossed, thinking, “He cannot die. He is the brave one. He cannot die.”
As the sound of slogans neared, Jana’s face turned hard, her expressions changed, and tears began to swell in her eyes. She knew the worst has come true finally, but she wanted to keep hope. “I was sure he cannot die like this,” she later told this reporter. Before she could raise her hands for one last prayer, around two-dozen hands pushed open the blue iron-gate; another set of hands carried her beloved son inside the small courtyard.
“She didn’t react at all,” said Feroz Ahmad Bhat, 34, Jana’s eldest son. “As if she still hoped for a miracle.”
Within minutes Jana’s small courtyard, her favourite kitchen garden, and every inch of space in her house got filled with mourners. Sabzar was so close but still so far.
Jana could see his face but there were hundreds of moist eyes, sunken faces and broken hearts between them. Then someone from the crowd asked the mourners to form a line so that funeral could be offered. “There were four or five funerals inside our house,” recalls Mohammad Younis Bhat, 25, Jana’s youngest son.
Surrounded by hundreds of mourners, Jana made a desperate appeal to meet her son, but her voice died in the sound of anger and frustration. Then like a desperate mother Jana pushed her athletic shoulders through the crowd, but a quick thinking neighbour pulled her back and said, “Not now.”
Jana wanted to tell her neighbour that it has been 773 days since she sat with her son, caressed his hair, laughed with him, served him meals, admired his smiling face, or talked to him. She wanted to tell her that “not now” is not an option anymore; it is “now or never” for her.
But Jana’s trail of thoughts lost track as mourners carried her son to nearby Tuil Bagh (mulberry orchard), so that everybody can have one last glimpse of Sabzar.
Located barely 500 meters from their house Tuil Bagh was the same place where Sabzar used to hang-out with his friends and play games of hide-and-seek as a kid. His friends recall how he used to sneak behind a mulberry tree, and hide himself for hours. Today, his large frame barely fits under the shade of multiple mulberries.
The previous night
At 8:45 pm, Jana was busy with her chores when her husband Ghulam Hassan Bhat, who is in his early sixties, came inside the kitchen and said, “There has been some gunshots somewhere nearby. Did you hear?”
But Jana didn’t pay much attention and instead asked her daughter to help her serve the dinner. As Jana, her husband, their son Younis and youngest daughter sat down for dinner, an uneasy silence filled the kitchen. “I felt something was not right,” recalls Sabzar’s father Bhat, a stout man whose unkempt white beard and hard-face bore testimony to his years of labour and hard-work. “But I kept my feeling to myself.”
Once the dinner was finished Bhat and Jana went to bed early as they had a busy day ahead at their small orchard. At 2:20 am, sound of fierce gunfight in the distance woke Jana. “It was intense,” recalls Jana.
Within no time everyone in the house was awake but nobody knew what is happening or where it is happening.
Around same time, barely 1.5 kms south in Saimoh village, Sabzar and two other militants, after coming face-to-face with police and army, took shelter in a two-storey house.
It was later said that Sabzar was hit by a bullet in his leg during the initial exchange of fire. For next six hours, while Jana struggled to sleep, her son Sabzar was holed inside a house in Saimoh, surrounded by around five hundred men eager to kill him. As gunshots stopped briefly, the forces sprinkled the house with petrol and set it afire. By then, however, Sabzar and his friends had shifted to the nearby house, a two-storey concrete building. For next half-an-hour, this house was pounded using all sorts of ammunition. Then there was a long silence.
“We had no idea that it’s our son who was fighting in the neighbouring village,” said Bhat, trying hard to keep his tough face intact. “Had I known, I had gone there to save him.”
At 3:30 am, when the sound of gunshots stopped, Jana’s heart started to sink, but she had no idea why. “It never came to my mind that it could be my son,” said Jana, “Or may be, I didn’t want to think that way.”
At 8:30 am, Jana’s eldest son Feroz, who lives with his in-laws in Aripal village, around 15 km from Rathsuna, came rushing with the bad news. He told his father that Sabzar is feared to be engaged in an encounter in Saimoh. Almost same time, the silence at the encounter site was broken by a single gunshot fired by Sabzar. “It was his way of saying that I am alive,” said a young boy from Saimoh village.
As the day proceeded, multiple rumours started making rounds in small Rathsuna village.
At 9 am, a neighbour came running to Bhat’s house and told Younis that Sabzar and his friends have fled. But there was no confirmation. “Usually militants call their families one last time,” said Feroz. “But he didn’t call us at all. Probably he wanted to keep us out of trouble even when death was inevitable.”
Then about an hour later, another neighbour came and told Feroz that Sabzar is still alive. “There was lot of confusion about his presence,” recalls Bhat. “Nobody was sure. Besides, all roads to Saimoh were blocked.”
As tension engulfed, first Saimoh, then neighbouring Rathsuna and Tral and finally entire Kashmir, Jana refused to accept what was now almost certain. “He cannot break his promise,” she kept saying.
On April 13, 2015, Sabzar and his father had gone to collect a tractor-load of cow-dung (used as manure) for their orchard from near Kamla forests.
Around same time Khalid Muzaffar Wani, a resident of Shareefabad, Tral, had gone to meet his militant brother Burhan Wani, in the same forest range.
As Sabzar was loading the cow-dung in the tractor, he heard some gunshots in the forest. “He told me to rush home while he would finish the loading,” recalls Bhat. “He was not afraid of anything.”
At lunch time, when Sabzar came home, the news of Khalid’s killing had spread in the area like wildfire. “Everyone was out on the streets protesting,” recalls Bhat.
Sabzar, who was friends with Burhan, rushed to Shareefabad and participated in Khalid’s funeral.
The next day, Sabzar told his mother that he will be out for a while. There were protests and clashes in entire Tral against Khalid’s killing. “He came back for lunch as promised,” recalls Jana. Then he went out towards Tral, around 4 kms away.As Sabzar reached near the taxi stand Tral, he came across two dozen boys who were pelting stones on police. Filled with anger at loss of his childhood friend, he too pelted a few stones. As the forces charged at the stone-pelters, everyone ran towards safety, except Sabzar. Instead, he charged back towards them and got hold of a CRPF man. His big hands gripped the CRPF man’s throat like death grip. After hitting him on the head, Sabzar decamped with his service rifle and ran towards the nearby forests. “I called him after Isha prayers as we were preparing to serve dinner,” recalls Bhat.
Sabzar told his father that he will join them shortly as he is still in the mosque. Out of instinct Jana grabbed the phone and asked him to come back. “I promise I will be with you for dinner,” Sabzar assured his mother and hung up quickly.
Fifteen minutes later when he didn’t show up Bhat called him again. This time Sabzar’s voice was different, recalls Bhat. “He sounded resolute,” said Bhat. Before Bhat could have asked him why you are not home he said, “bihiv khudayas hawaal’ (May Allah be with you).”
Bhat instantly recalled a conversation between two neighbours about a local boy who snatched a rifle today in Tral. “I was now sure they talked about Sabzar,” said Bhat.
Then Bhat handed over the phone to Jana, who tried her best to convince her son. “But he had made up his mind already,” said Jana. When Jana became sure that Sabzar was not going to give up, she reminded him of his promise to join them for dinner at least once. “He said I will come back soon, I promise,” recalls Jana. Then, before Sabzar hung up, Jana gave him ijazaat (permission) and said, “ghass khudayas hawaal (Go, may Allah be with you always).”
As mourners kept pouring inside Jana’s modest house, which was constructed entirely by Sabzar, and then plastered and painted, everyone was moved by a mother’s waiting eyes.
Then at 9 pm, almost six hours later, Sabzar was brought home from Tuil Bagh for one final time. “For entire time Jana kept her eyes fixed at the gate,” said her son Feroz.
Once Sabzar was home Jana leapt towards her son and hugged his numb body. Then, without a hint of tears in her eyes, she directed the boys, who carried Sabzar in their arms, to take him inside the house. “They kept him inside the living room but Jana objected,” said Bhat.
Instead, Jana directed them to take him to her room where she had already made a bed for him. With utmost delicacy Sabzar was shifted on to the mattress. Then Jana ordered everyone out of the room and locked it from inside. Heartbroken, Jana slept next to her dead son, humming songs praising his beauty and youthfulness.
“I kept his head on my arm and caressed his hair like I used to when he was a child,” said Jana. “My son was with me finally.”
Outside Jana’s bedroom everyone was waiting impatiently, ready to rush in on a short notice. “We thought she couldn’t bear sight of her dead son for long,” said Bhat.
But everyone including Bhat was proven wrong by a mother.
As the mourners, who had come from as far as Pahalgam, Shopian, Kulgam, Baramulla were adjusted in nearby houses for the night, Rathsuna village fell silent.
The only sound that one could hear was of conversation between a mother and her son.
“For next eleven hours we talked like we had never talked before,” said Jana, without a hint of remorse on her face. “I told him how proud I am. I also complained for not dinning with us as promised. But he said nothing. He slept quietly next to me like a child.”
At 8 am, finally Bhat and his two sons knocked at Jana’s door. After five minutes silence Jana opened the door, her eyes red for want of sleep, her lips dry, her hands sketched with her son’s blood, her face wasted and sullen. There were hundreds waiting outside to take Sabzar for burial. Before Bhat could have said something, Jana turned around and took a long look at her son’s face, who lay quite inside the room. “You can take him now,” she told her husband plainly.
At 9 am Burhan’s friend and successor Sabzar was laid to rest in Rathsuna’s local Mazara-e-Shuhda, adjacent to the mosque. He shares space with 16 local and one foreign (Burmese) militant.
Back home Jana was still confused as she fixed her eyes at the blue-gate. “Was it the longest night or the shortest one,” Jana wondered.