Fourteen years have gone by since Ahagam was almost totally razed down during a gun battle between the army and militants, but scares of that devastation and humiliation remain even as the village may have recovered in most ways. Mir Iqbal reports
Ravaged by conflict, traumatized by tragedy and strangled by social taboos, people of village Ahagam, District Shopian, have been both witness to and victims of violence which has had a significant effect on their lives. Psychological wounds inflicted by violence and impunity on the villagers continue to increase and goes well beyond socio-economic problems.
It was the evening of 14th of April1998, when the army cordoned off the village and announced from the Masjid loud speaker that the “army has cordoned off the village, and everyone is warned not to leave the village”. The villagers were told to gather in the Masjid lawn.
When the dusk fell the army took some young boys along with them and started a search operation in the village from house to house. That time it was said that dozens of Afghan militants were hiding in the village. The search operation was yet to start when exchange of fire between army and militants began. “There was heavy exchange of fire, grenades and mortars for three days and nights”, said Mudasir Ahmad, a villager.
On the second day of the encounter, the militants used some powerful devices to break the cordon and four of the militants escaped from the spot. Around the same time villagers got an opportunity to run to safer places particularly to neighboring villages.
“The village consisted of eighty families at that time, forty five houses were completely destroyed, rest of the houses were partially or fully damaged. The cattle were burnt alive inside cattle sheds,” said Imtiyaz Ahmad Lone, who runs a medical shop in the village.
“When we returned to our village there was a bad smell of dead animals all over the village, the doctors cautioned us to take precautionary measures,” added Imtiyaz.
When the encounter ended the village remained under military siege for ten days. Then army distributed tents among the villagers who were also given free food supply for next fifteen days.
But what inflicted maximum suffering to the villagers was that most lost documents related to land records, student certificates and valuable goods. “We lost a valuable document that is why many of the students didn’t continue their studies afterwards,” Imtiyaz said.
Not only this, the loss of land records gave a good chance to authorities to grab many land plots in the village, on which the army camp, Army Goodwill School, Juice plant, shopping complex, veterinary, health center, playground and bus stand were constructed later.
“This all illegal occupation of land was undertaken under a well planned program called ‘Operation Sadhbavna ’,” said Aijaz Ahmad Bhat, another resident of the village.
Many central government ministers like Sonia Gandhi, L K Advani, George Farnadese, V P Malik and Dr Farooq Abdullah visited the village. And at that time Ali Mohammed Sagar announced Rupees 1.80 crore for reconstruction of the village. Sagar announced that those whose houses had been completely damaged would be given an amount of Rs 3 lac each, and whose houses had been partially damaged would be given an amount of Rs 2.5 lac each.
Despite the announcement of relief for the victims by the government, for the next one year the villagers had to take shelter under tin sheds and no relief was given to them.
When asked about the support from separatist parties, villagers said, Mohammed Yaseen Malik JKLF Chairman distributed the books among school going children and Syed Ali Shah Geelani Chairman Hurriyat Conference gave one lakh rupees to the village.
“In year 1999 to 2000, an army engineering team was engaged to rebuild the village. That was the toughest time for us, because the team forced the villagers to work as wageless labourers for construction of unnecessary buildings,” said Imtiyaz Ahmad.
The damages tore the social fabric of the village apart. There is large number of people who received injures during the encounter due to baton-charging, bullet hits and bombs. Even six months after the devastating incident some unexploded shells went off in the village, which left many people disabled, like Aijaz Ahmad Bhat, 25.
“What meant more harassment for us was the distribution of food items, kerosene, medicines and blankets. The army on one hand used to distribute these items to make videos and at the same time they used to take back these items,” said Imtiyaz Ahmad.
Not only this, many people were tortured, beaten after the incident, and control of the village was given completely in the hands of security forces.