Two young men visited a border outpost to register their movement but did not come out. After massive protests, one was recovered almost half dead, another is still missing. Tahir Bhat visited Devar belt in frontier Kupwara to report the crisis
On August 31, 2017, two young men from Lolab Manzoor Ahmad Khan and Nasrullah Khan, residents of Kakarpati Devar, were detained by Army. Later that evening, Nasrullah was released but Manzoor is still missing. Residents presume he is already killed.
The two were arrested by Rashtriya Rifles-27 that is operating from Tarmukh garrison. Trehmukh Top overlooks the Pahadi communities who migrate to the foothill meadows during summer to graze their livestock. Living in summer mud-and timber hutments, they even cultivate patches of the hills. Soldiers are positioned at this peak. Interestingly, the army camp located inside Devar forests is adjacent to Bandipora district boundary and is located on the foot-track between two districts. This track is usually being used by the residents to reach Bandipore.
But this godforsaken belt, literally ruled by this garrison, is home to many happenings, the most common charge is the Begaar, the forced labour. Locals allege this is being routine extorted from them.
On August 31, Devar residents were busy with their daily routine. In the morning, Manzoor, a farmer and herder in his late twenties and his uncle, Jalaluddin, 65, were going to Bandipora with his Aunt Parveena taking the hill route. On their way, they met Nasrullah Khan, 35, according to residents.
As the group reached the peak, Manzoor approached the camp to deposit the mandatory entry passes obtained from an Army camp in the village below. The entry registration is to keep a record of the inhabitants of the temporary settlements. This is an old process in the belt.
“Nasrullah was ahead of us as he was riding a horse and we were walking on foot. Manzoor went inside the camp to submit the entry passes,” Jalaluddin said. “But then Manzoor came back to the gates after 10 to 15 minutes and told me that the Major wants to speak to him. He told me to wait.”
Din waited at the camp gate for an hour before asking the soldiers why Manzoor was not done yet. By then, Nasrullah’s relatives also arrived to enquire about him too. Soldiers told the concerned relatives that the two were actually let out through another gate at the other end of the camp. They rushed to that side but failed to locate them. They immediately returned to the camp gates, agitated. “We raised a hue and cry to force them to give our men back,” Din said. “But soldiers refused to even accept that they have detained anyone.”
The residents, however, refused to disperse until the two men were released. “By evening, soldiers said one person was with them and would be released after 10 minutes,” Din said. “But that did not happen. Finally, Major came out and said that Nasrullah is in his doke (hutments).
Villagers rushed to the hutment at the far end of the settlement at about 9 pm that evening. “He was half dead,” said a villager, who wishes to remain anonymous. “He was lying on the floor in his hut and there was nobody around. His clothes were torn, smeared with blood and he was partly conscious.”
Nasrullah’s recovery spread like wildfire and people started talking about “third degree”, a usual reference to extreme torture. They
carried him down from the hill on their shoulders, took him to the Lalpora police station, some 6 km away, and then to a hospital in Sogam. There, doctors referred him to the SMHS Srinagar at around 2 am. His condition was not improving at SMHS Hospital and later he was shifted to SKIMS Soura.
Father of five children Nasrullah has bruises all over his body. His eyes are swollen and bruised. He is in Ward 04 at SKIMS.
When he reached near the camp gate for entry, he said, soldiers told me that Major wants to speak to him. They forcibly took him into the barrack where they tortured him till he became unconscious.
“A Major was asking me about the presence of militants in our area. I told them that I was unaware but they didn’t listen and started beating me,” Nasrullah alleged. Nearly 15 to 20 soldiers pinned him down and beat him with cricket bats, stumps and iron rods. “They also kicked me on the face, chest and legs, till I broke down and turned lifeless.”
Nasrullah said he and his friend Manzoor were screaming and pleading before the army soldiers to leave them. They were beaten in separate rooms of the barrack. “I was profusely bleeding and groaning in pain. However, they didn’t stop kicking and trampling on me,” he said. “Manzoor was screaming more loudly than me, but I didn’t hear his screams after a while. Allah should save him, but I doubt that he is alive.”
A labourer, Nasrullah has been the sole breadwinner for five children, wife and ailing mother. Now he is the first case of Rhabdomyolysis, the acute renal failure caused by torture. Between 1990 and 1995, Kashmir witnessed an epidemic of this disease that is caused by the breakage of capillaries in the muscles that eventually fail the kidney. The disease disappeared gradually only to make a return after almost two decades. Nasrullah is undergoing haemodialysis.
“I can’t speak. As I utter a word, my whole body starts to ache severely. I cannot even see properly” he said, with tears rolling down his eyes. He is purple with bruises. “.”
Nasrullah family talk about an interesting happening in the SMHS hospital. A woman came near Nasrullah and whispered in his ears that he is going to be eliminated. Then she ran away. Soon, another stranger came to enquire about him. “As soon as we caught him and handed him to security he was let escape before we called the police,” Nasrullah’s family said.
Shabir Ahmad, his nephew, who is attending to him in SKIMS, fears that being the lone witness to torture and disappearance of Manzoor might prove dangerous for him.
Suhail is Nasrullah son. He is 13. “We sold our cow and horse for our father’s treatment,” he said. “Army came to us and offered help in my father’s treatment but we refused to take any assistance from them.” Soldiers have told locals that they beat Nasrullah because “he was providing meals to militants.”
Devar has given up searching for Manzoor. “We don’t know if he is alive, he was much weaker than Nasrullah and we do not know if he could survive the torture,” said a local resident. “Maybe the Army is not giving him back because he is too injured or maybe he is already dead.”
Residents insist militancy angle was just an excuse and the incident was planned in advance. His family had completed all preparations for his marriage.
Manzoor’s father Ghulam Qadir said on August 31, morning a few soldiers had come asking for his son.
Jalaluddin said when they revisited Army after Nasrullah’s recovery, the Commanding Officer of 27 Rashtriya Rifles also arrived and asked for more time to produce Manzoor. “He told us he will find him from wherever he has to, but asked us to give him some time. He said it may take up to 10 days.” Din said.
Missing Manzoor, interestingly, is a close relative of state’s law minister Abdul Haq Khan. The minister visited the area, talked to the army, assured action but there has not been any change.
Manzoor’s disappearance has brought long brewing resentments in the area to a boil. Hidden away from the gaze of the administration and the media, the villagers complain of forced labour and extortion by soldiers at Trehmokh Top. It has been more than two years since 27 Rashtriya Rifles moved into the camp there. Since then, villagers allege they have been forced to provide free labour and wood to the Army unit, said residents of Devar.
Adil Farooq, 25-year-old, said every year in April when residents of Devar arrive at Trehmokh Top for the summer, soldiers demands two to four wooden beams, used for construction purposes, from each household.
They alleged they were forced to construct the bunkers and residential huts in the camp “We constructed a large quarter there just last year,” Adil said. “We cannot refuse to work. If we do, they will kill us. They don’t let us graze our animals or enter our fields.”
A young villager at Trehmokh Top, wishing anonymity, alleged the residents provide soldiers firewood before they return home at the end of summer. “By October-November they ask us to cut more trees because they need firewood for the winter,” he said.
Another resident of Kakad Pati said hundreds of trees were cut down by locals each year for the Army but they did not know what the wood was used for. “We don’t know what they do with the wooden beams, but they take it from us every year,” he said.
“There are about 50 persons working in Army, 250 people working as labourers with the army, 99% of people vote in elections,” a resident Mushtaq said. “There is not a single case militancy since1990.”