A series of brutal killings by unknown gunmen have frightened the region that was source of scare to most of Kashmir at one point of time. As the complex cycle of killings continues in Hajin, Shams Irfan visited the belt to understand if the erstwhile Ikhwan capital is slipping back to its haunted past.
There is a strange hint of satisfaction in Mehmooda’s voice, as she narrates how her son Naseer Ahmad Sheikh, 27, a driver, was abducted and then killed by unknown gunmen in Hajin, the north Kashmir town, now emerging as the new source of disturbing news.
“At least his body was intact,” said Mehmooda, trying hard to control her failing voice. “It bore no torture marks, either.”
The reason for Mehmooda’s “satisfaction” was the fate of Naseer’s brother-in-law Muzaffar Ahmad Parray alias Muzze Natta, a professional butcher, whose headless body with torture marks, was found near River Jhelum, in town outskirts, on August 27, 2017.
After Muzze Natte’s headless body was quickly buried, along with a number of unanswered questions, a strange yet familiar fear returned to haunt erstwhile Ikhwan capital.
For almost next eight months Hajin lived in perpetual fear of the unknown, till Lashkar-e-Toiba, the main militant outfit active in the belt, in a written statement, termed Muzaffar’s killing as the “handiwork of Indian agencies”.
But the sequence of events that led to Naseer’s killing at his in-law’s house, where he had gone for dinner, started a bloody chain of kidnappings and killings in Hajin town.
On April 2, 2018, Naseer, a father of two daughters: Aayat, 4, and five-month-old Ayesha, got a call from his wife Neelofar asking him to come over for the night stay. She has been with her parents house since she became a mother again. Naseer had not visited them since Muzaffar’s killing. “But that night he couldn’t say no as Neelofar pressed him hard,” said Mehmooda.
Naseer, a personal driver for a forest department official, quickly changed into a new pair of clothes and left towards Parray Mohalla, barely 5-minute walk from his Gath Mohalla home.
“As I came to know he has gone to his in-law’s house, I asked my daughter to cross-check,” recalls Mehmooda. “After Muzaffar’s killing, Hajin was no longer safe.”
On Mehmooda’s insistence, Nahida, his sister, called Neelofar. “She told me that he is here and they are about to have dinner,” recalls Mehmooda. “I was now relieved.”
After dinner, Mehmooda and her husband Ghulam Nabi Sheikh, a Forest Department guard, went to sleep early.
At 10:45 pm, a local chemist, whose shop is outside Hajin hospital, called Naseer’s youngest brother Suhail: “Your sister-in-law, her mother and your brother are injured. They are in the hospital. You must come fast.”
Within no time Naseer’s mother, his brothers Sameer, 23, and Suhail, 18, along with their maternal uncle Abdul Majid Rather, living next door, rushed towards the hospital. “It took us less than five minutes to reach there,” recalls Mehmooda.
Neelofar was lying unconscious on a stretcher, with a bullet in her leg, and bandages all over her body. “She was first shot then stabbed with a long knife in her abdomen,” recalls Mehmooda.
In another corner, Naseer’s mother-in-law, also stabbed, was lying in a pool of blood.
Apart from a few confused neighbours, with fear visible on their sleepy faces, there were no males around. Mehmooda panicked. Desperate, she grabbed one of the neighbours and asked him about Naseer. In a trembling but low voice the neighbour answered cautiously: suh neov bundook bardarov (He has been taken by the gunmen).
All of a sudden images of her son’s smiling face started flashing in front of Mehmood’s eyes. “We all stood still. There was nothing we could have done at this hour,” said Mehmooda.
While Mehmooda’s family members were looking at each other for some answers or a plan, the chemist came running towards them and said: army and SOG are on their way: “You must go home now. Wait till day-break. We will find Naseer, InshAllah.”
Left with no other option, Mehmooda and her family went home, and sat inside a small room, waiting impatiently for the day-break. “It was the longest and most painful night of our lives,” said Naseer’s uncle Rather.
With her eyes fixed on the clock, Mehmooda straddled between hope and fear – both visible on her round but short face.
As the first light touched tin roofs in Ghat Mohalla, a poor neighbourhood with modest houses built on either side of the water-logged access road, Mehmooda’s entire family rushed out to search for Naseer. “We visited nearby orchards. To all the dense plantations in our vicinity,” said Rather. “But there was nothing.”
At around 10:15 am, a few locals found Naseer’s body in a field, around 1.5 kilometres from his house. It had two bullet marks: one in the leg and other in the abdomen. There was a small cut on his right hand too.
Once home Mehmooda checked Naseer’s body from head to toe, to be sure that her son was not tortured before he was shot. “I checked his nails too. I wanted to see if he had died a painful death,” said Mehmooda, with an expressionless face. “They were clean. There were no torture marks. He was gone, but I still wanted to know how he died.”
As soon as Naseer’s funeral was over, which was attended by handful of relatives and close friends, questions began to emerge in Hajin and its adjoining areas.
Within no time people started to connect the dots; all the way back to dreaded Ikhwan days.
In 1995, Mohammad Yousuf Parray aka Kuka Parray, a folk singer turned gunman, joined hands with the army and formed Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon, one of the most dreaded counter-insurgency group in Sonawari belt.
With army’s support Kuka Parray, a resident of Hajin’s Parray Mohallah ruled entire Bandipora district with absolute impunity. In order to finance his “mission,” Kuka Parray cut down thousands of trees in government nursery and sold them to private timber merchants. Also, Kuka Parray got his close aides appointed in different departments, especially in the forest department. Gradually he started “serving” Srinagar too.
Almost two decades after Kuka Parray was killed by little-known outfit al Nasreen, in Hajin, where he had gone to inaugurate a cricket match on September 13, 2003, his ghost has come back to haunt his close aides and former associates. One such aide was Abdul Gaffar Bhat, 46, now a plantation helper in Municipal Committee Hajin, who shifted to Bonikhan Mohallah, a small locality populated on the edge of the village, and surrounded by apple orchards, from dense Kan Mohallah, some ten years back.
On April 4, 2018, a day after Naseer’s killing, Gaffar and his family were sleeping when a loud knocking at the front door woke them up. “It was around 11:45 pm. I quickly got up and opened the door,” said Gaffar’s wife Saja Begum, 43, a housewife.
On the other side were five men in masks. They carried weapons, recalls Saja. They asked for Saja’s youngest son Manzoor Ahmad Bhat, 27, a shepherd, who had come home two days back after staying with his herd for six days at Banyari, a pasture seven kilometres from his home.
When Saja asked them why they need Manzoor at this hour, one of the gunmen, who spoke a mix of Punjabi and Urdu, assured her, “We just want to talk to him. We mean no harm.”
With a heavy heart, Saja went inside and alerted everyone including her elder son Javaid and her husband Gaffar, who came rushing out. “Manzoor too came out after he heard people talk inside the kitchen,” said Saja.
When the gunmen saw Manzoor and his father, they herded everyone else, including Javiad, his mother, his two sisters, his grandmother Habba and their niece, into a room and locked it from outside.
“They took our mobile phones as well,” recalls Manzoor’s sister, Sakina. “We were too terrified to even cry for help.”
Quickly, the armed men walked Manzoor and his father, out of their front door, towards the nearby orchards.
Ten minutes later a series of gunshots ripped through the silent Hajin sky, forcing Gaffar’s family to cry for help.
“We knew something was wrong,” recalls Saja, who tried hard to control her tears.
Hearing their cries, a few neighbours walked towards their house, with caution, and unlocked them. As the door flung open, Gaffar’s mother Habba, who is in her early seventies, ran outside, without caring about darkness or dogs – two things that frightened her since childhood, to look for her son and grandson.
Once out of the front door, Habba ran towards the nearby orchards, crying loudly her son and grandson’s name. “It was pitch dark outside. I could see nothing,” recalls Habba.
Five minutes later, as Habba reached near a stream, she heard someone crying for help in the distance. “I shouted back, who is there?” recalls Habba.
Within no time, a frightened voice, visibly in pain replied: buh hai chus Gaffar, moujey (It is me Gaffar, mother).
Failing to locate Gaffar’s actual position in the darkness, Habba cried again: Manzoor kati chue? (Where is Manzoor?)
Amid loud sobs, Gaffar said in a trembling voice, “he is with them.”
A few minutes later Habba saw someone running towards her through open fields, all the way across dense apple orchards. “It was my son Gaffar. He was shot in the chest,” said Habba. As Gaffar reached near his mother, he collapsed, leaving his frail old mother crying for help. “I cried as loud as I could,” recalls Habba.
Hearing Habba’s cries Gaffar eldest son Javaid and a few neighbours came running for help. “He was taken to Hajin hospital, then to JVC in Srinagar,” said Sakina.
For next two days, while Gaffar was nursing his injuries at Srinagar hospital; other members of his family were busy looking for Manzoor, who was with the unknown gunmen.
Two days later, on April 6, Manzoor’s cousins and relatives, who were looking for him, saw his headless body lying in an apple orchard, about 1 kilometre from his house.
As the news spread, Gaffar, who was under-treatment at Srinagar, came back home despite still fresh wounds.
Recalling the events of that night Gaffar told his family that once outside, he realised the gunmen are going to kill them, so he tried to escape. However, before he could run free, one of the gunmen shot him in the chest. But, without looking back, or stopping, Gaffar ran towards his house.
“I thought Manzoor too managed to flee. But I was wrong,” Gaffar later told his family.
Two killings within four days left entire Hajin in a state of shock. Groups of carefree youth would sit on the shop-fronts in the evening asking: “Ama Aaaz Kemis Dinn Tass (who will be killed tonight).
What added to the confusion and fear was that no one took responsibility for Naseer and Manzoor’s killings. “It gave rise to rumours,” said Sartaj (name changed), an Ikhwan era victim who managed to survive the 1990s mayhem. He now runs a shop in main-market Hajin.
However, people like Sartaj, who have survived Kuka Parray’s rule, can smell deep resentment for Ikhwan among new generation in Hajin. “Being a forest guard, Naseer’s father was very close to Kuka Parray,” claims Sartaj. “His association with Kuka Parray is an open secret in Hajin.”
In order to make his point, Sartaj adds, “Those days Kuka Parray owned forests, rather looted them, and a lot of his close associates made huge money out of the plunder.”
After Naseer’s killing, Hajin was calm for around three weeks. It was temporary. Shrieks of wailing women and orphaned children returned, as unknown gunmen struck again, this time in Shah Gund village, around four kilometres from Hajin.
Confusion and Confession
On May 5, 2018, at around 9:30 pm, Bashir Ahmad Dar, a carpenter, sat for dinner with his family members when someone opened the kitchen’s door from outside. Without disturbing anyone, Bashir quietly sneaked out. After talking to them for over two minutes, Bashir came back, grabbed his shoes and left again. “He said he will be back soon,” recalls Bashir’s elder brother.
Fifteen minutes later Bashir called his uncle Ghulam Hassan Dar, 35, a taxi driver, who was staying with his elder brother Abdul Rahim Dar after a gas cylinder explosion destroyed his two-room wooden house in early 2017. Hassan survived with 70 per cent burn injuries.
Bashir told Hassan that he has been abducted by some men, and he is kept at Baghat Mohalla, a few hundred metres from his house in Gulshan Mohalla.
Not knowing how to react, Hassan asked his brother Abdul Rahim and his kids to sleep, while he stayed up, thinking how to get Bashir back.
At 2:30 am, Hassan heard Bashir’s voice in the courtyard of Rahim’s house. As he listened closely, he could hear Bashir was urging him to come out.
Hassan came out quickly, wearing just a trouser and an undershirt, he saw Bashir standing in the courtyard, surrounded by three masked men. When Bashir saw Hassan, his face lit with hope. “He asked me for a glass of water,” said Abdul Rahim, who too was woken by Bashir’s cries. “They didn’t let him talk much.”
Then one of the masked men ordered Hassan to walk outside with them. “He said we just want to talk to him,” recalls Abdul Rahim.
After a bit of reluctance, Hassan agreed to go with them for Bashir’s sake. “Before he left, he went inside to change his clothes,” recalls Abdul Rahim.
After Hassan and Bashir left with the gunmen, Abdul Rahim went inside, where his wife Posha, and his sons waited for him desperately. Abdul Rahim, the fourth among six brothers, didn’t inform any of his brothers, including Bashir’s father. All the six brothers lived in the same locality, in four different houses. “I didn’t want to create panic. I was sure they will be back soon,” said Abdul Rahim. “But I was wrong. I was very wrong. I should have informed everyone.”
Unable to sleep, Abdul Rahim and his family sat in a corner of their modest drawing room. Like rest of their single storey house, their drawing room too smelled of cement and bricks.
At 3:05 am, Abdul Rahim heard four gunshots, one after another, in quick successions. “We looked at each other’s faces but nobody dared to say anything,” said Abdul Rahim.
Without acting in haste, Abdul Rahim asked his wife and kids to remain silent and wait for the first light.
However, as soon as mouzin finished calling faithful for morning prayers, Abdul Rahim’s wife Posha, couldn’t bear it anymore and rushed straight out of her house. “She alerted everyone in the family first,” said Abdul Rahim.
Then she ran towards the main market, but there was no-one out yet, so she came back.
At 5:45 am Ghulam Rasool Dar, 55, second among six brothers, got a call from a neighbour, who told him that his brother Hassan and his nephew Bashir are lying unconscious near village mosque in Rahim Dar Mohalla. “We quickly rushed towards the said spot,” said Ghulam Rasool.
However, once they reached the half-way mark, they saw around fifty people, carrying Hassan and Bashir’s bodies, walk towards them.
When Ghulam Rasool saw his brother and nephew’s blood-soaked bodies, it brought back bitter memories of March 6, 2014. On this day Ghulam Rasool’s son Farhat Rasool Dar, 16, a Class 10 student was killed by CRPF men near Naidkhai, after some youngsters allegedly pelted stones on them. “He was not part of protests,” said his father Ghulam Rasool.
Almost two months after Farhat’s killing, his uncle Hassan was arrested by Hajin police on the charges of stone pelting. He spent three months in their custody. “Now I was looking at Hassan and Bashir’s bodies,” said Ghulam Rasool, while wiping his tears with his work-hardened hands.
From home Hassan and Bashir’s bodies were taken to Hajin police station, around 4 kilometres away. While Hassan was shot in the head and heart, Bashir’s body bore torture marks and a bullet in stomach and head. “At Hajin police station, our statements were recorded but that is it,” said Abdul Razak Dar, the third brother. “Nobody visited us after that. No police, no army, not even Hurriyat or anyone else.”
Interestingly, a day after Hassan and Bashir’s killing, an 11-second video clip, shot in the dark, started doing rounds on the social media sites. In that clip, Bashir is seen confessing in front of the camera, that he provides information about stone-pelters. The short clip was uploaded on the Youtube on May 6, 2018, a day after they were killed, by a video channel Kashmir Struggle.
“If they would have been informers, as they were later branded, then Hassan wouldn’t have been arrested and tortured by the police after Farhat’s killing,” argues Abdul Rahim. “Besides, there is no militant visible in the clip. They (militants) don’t hide. Why would they?”
Abdul Razak, the silent one among his six siblings said, “Both militants and army wear the same uniform now. Who knows who killed Hassan and Bashir? They all look same.”
Both Hassan and Bashir were buried in the local martyr’s graveyard, flanking Farhan’s small grave on both sides.
“There is a lot of confusion in the entire belt as Dar’s was pro-freedom family,” said Basit, a local activist who refused to give his real name for fear of reprisal. “But that video has put doubt in everyone’s mind. Anything is possible in this area now.”
Standing outside Abdul Rahim’s modest house, Bashir’s cousins’ recall how he had promised them sweets and other gifts, once he would hand-over the bed he was working on, to his ‘rich’ client. “He was supposed to deliver that bed the day he died,” said one of them painfully.
A few meters away, at the northern end of Ghulam Rasool’s courtyard, overlooking a vast green expanse, stood Hassan’s half-burnt house. “Before his accident, Hassan was part of Geelani’s Hurriyat, then why was he killed?” asks Ghulam Rasool curiously.
As Ghulam Rasool edges closer to what remains of Hassan’s house, he picks up a pair of burnt up kameez-shalwar, the one his brother wore when he caught fire. With a hint of tears in his eyes, Ghulam Rasool then held it in front of his face, as if trying to figure out things afresh. “He (Hassan) died an unlucky man. In ten years of his marriage, he had no kids. He divorced his wife four days before his killing,” said Ghulam Rasool in a voice full of helplessness. “Despite being pro-freedom all his life, he died a traitor’s death. Life cannot be crueller.”
But Ghulam Rasool was wrong. Just eleven days later, death once again knocked at a young married couple’s bedroom window.
On May 16, 2018, at around 11:30 pm, Hilal Ahmad Parray, 32, was sleeping, when a masked man knocked at the glass window. Puzzled how he got in, as their main-gate was locked, Hilal quickly jumped out of his bed.
Before he went out to unlock the front door for the ‘visitor’, he told his wife Rabia, not to panic. “But I didn’t listen to him and followed him out,” recalls Rabia.
Located at the edge of Parray Mohallah, Hilal, his brother, four sisters and parents shifted to their new house a few months back. As Hilal opened the front door, he saw four men with AK47 rifles standing in the lawn. In the darkness, he could see only two men had their faces covered. “They were locals as they talked in Kashmiri,” recalls Rabia.
The remaining two, who had their faces open, were non-locals. “They were tall, well built, and spoke a mix of Punjabi and Urdu,” recalls Rabia.
Trying to sound friendly, one of the local gunmen asked Hilal to accompany them outside, as they wanted to have a word with him in private. “But I refused. I didn’t let them take him outside,” recalls Rabia. “I had a feeling that their intentions were not right.”
As Rabia started to negotiate with the gunmen on her husband’s behalf, Hilal’s sisters, Laali and Masarat, came out running too. “They were woken up by the noise,” said Rabia. When one of the local gunmen, whose face was covered too, tried to intervene, Hilal recognized his voice and asked: chuie chukha? (Is it you).
It instantly muted the gunmen, who quickly adjusted his cover and let one of the non-local gunmen do all the talking. “Hilal had opened the door thinking they are militants who need food,” said Rabia. “But they insisted he should go out with them.”
Sensing danger, Hilal’s sisters quickly created a human shield between the gunmen and their brother. But to their surprise, one of them put his gun on Laali’s chest and said: I will kill you or let us take him. “Before we could have raised an alarm, they took my husband and vanished in the darkness,” recalls Rabia. “They also took mine and my husband’s mobile phones with them.”
Within no time Hilal’s father Abdul Rashid Parray, 55, a farmer, assembled his relatives and began scanning apple orchards not far from their house.
At 2 am, Abdul Rashid was joined by his brother-in-law Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, who lives around 15 kilometres away. As they wandered from one orchard to another, Hilal’s father’s thoughts raced back to Ikhwan days.
Before Kuka Parray ruled Hajin, it was Abdul Rashid’s younger brother Bashir Ahmad Parray alias Saleem Khan, a Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander, who would call shots in Sonawari belt. But Bashir couldn’t survive the 1990s mayhem for long. On August 19, 1992, after a fierce gunfight with BSF at Baniyari, some 7 kilometres from his home, Bashir was killed.
Two years later Kuka Parray emerged as the unchallenged Sultan of counter-insurgency. In order to finance his group’s lifestyle, Kuka Parray started clearing large forest areas in Bandipora.
At the same time, Kuka Parray identified timber merchants in the area and called them one-by-one at his residence. They were given two choices: help Kuka Parray sell timber or face the music.
Abdul Rashid, who was regularly harassed for being slain Hizb commander’s elder brother, was one of the first timber merchants to be summoned. “The first choice seemed logical given his track record,” recalls Abdul Rashid.
But working with a person like Kuka Parray was not easy, as he used to make all transactions at the gun-point. “He used to sell timber in the day, and his men used to loot the same from our factories at gunpoint in the night,” recalls Abdul Rashid. “I incurred a loss of Rs 7.5 lakh back then, which was huge. It forced me to shut my unit forever.”
Apart from that Kuka Parray used to collect regular ‘donations’ from businessmen who lived in Sonawari. “I had to pay Rs 5000 as a donation when Kuka Parray published his first poetry book,” recalled Abdul Rashid. The release of the poem collection Jam-e-Jam was a literal state function.
But little did Abdul Rashid know that the ghost of Ikhwan will come back to haunt Hajin again. “I thought worst was over with Kuka Parray’s death,” said Abdul Rashid.
However, with Hilal’s kidnapping by mysterious gunmen, Abdul Rashid’s fears started to take shape, as he and Bhat wandered in the darkness of the night, looking for him.
“I was sure he would be killed,” said Bhat. “Whosoever was picked like this in recent times, and at this hour, was killed.”
But despite fading hopes, Bhat and Abdul Rashid went deep into the orchards with the first light of day.
At 10 am, Bhat and Abdul Rashid, who were just back from their unsuccessful search, heard a loud cry. “It was one of our neighbours. He had come across Hilal’s body in an orchard,” said Abdul Rashid, as he wipes his tears.
As Abdul Rashid and other relatives rushed towards the orchard, a sense of helplessness overtook Rabia, who watched anxiously from her bedroom window. “I just want to ask them, why they killed my husband?” asks Rabia. “They could have given him a warning, or beaten him if he had done something wrong. But why to kill?”
After Hilal’s tortured body was buried by his angry friends and tearful relatives, a number of similar questions started doing rounds in Hajin. “In Ikhwan era, they used to extort money but rarely kill a person for petty reasons. But now things are entirely different in this area,” said Bhat. “No one knows who is killing our kids and why?”
Hilal’s relatives and friends, most of whom have served jail terms in cases related to pelting stones on police and CRPF after Burhan Wani’s killing, want answers too.
“If militants are not behind these killings, then they must come forward and say so. Their silence makes them guilty in people’s eyes,” said one of Hilal’s college time friends.
Another friend of Hilal, who was one of the first to reach his home after the news of his killing spread, has a suggestion for militants: “They (militants) must give evidence of one’s involvement before killing a person. Else what is the difference between them and Ikhwanis.”
Instead of getting an answer Hajin got one more body to bury. This time it was of Mohammad Yaqoob Wagey, 38, a butcher. On the night of May 24, 2018, five masked gunmen entered Wagey’s house and pinned him down. Without saying a word, two of them started slitting his throat with a knife. His seven-year-old son and young wife were made to watch as Wagey struggled for his life. Five minutes later, Wagey was dead, while gunmen fled, without a word or warning. “This brutality has the signature mark of Ikhwanis,” said Sartaj, the Ikhwan era victim. “I won’t be surprised if Ikhwan re-emerges from Hajin.”
Two days later, an unauthenticated six-minute long audio clip, attributed to Lashkar-e-Toiba, terms Hilal and Wagey’s killings unfortunate. The voice in the clip blames Indian agencies for their killing. “They want to divide us. They want to create fear among the freedom loving people,” the person in the audio claims. “Our sympathies are with Hilal and Wagey’s families.”
But the denial seems not enough for most of the Hajin residents, who live in constant fear since Muzze Natte’s killing in August 2017. “We don’t think any government agency is behind these killings,” said one of Hilal’s close friends angrily. “It is indeed militants. They are killing people to create fear.”
Since 2016, there were over fifty unsuccessful Cordon and Search Operations (CASO) in Hajin town, as young boys would risk their lives to help militants escape.
“Hajin had successfully erased its Ikhwan tag post-Burhan’s killing. It was now called Lashkar town,” said Amir, a local boy who refused to give his real name. “But these killings have put a big question mark on Lashkar’s modus operandi.”
A week after Hilal’s killing, Saleem Ahmad Parray, a local Lashkar militant, along with a non-local, appeared in Hajin and denied hand in Hilal and Yaqoob’s killings.
After they left, one could see fear and anger in people’s eyes. “It just needs a spark to burn entire Hajin, and beyond,” said Amir.