A Wailing Mother

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Decision by a son to join militancy was the first blow to her motherhood. His funeral coincided with the detection of cancer in her. As the treatment progressed, the family lost their shelter to a gun battle. Shams Irfan narrates the unending crisis of a family that survived the rebels’ death but is lost in the din of the turmoil

Amina Bano, mother of Aqib Ahmad Bhat

On March 4, 2017, the afternoon calm in Tral’s restive Nazneenpora hamlet, some 42 kilometres south of Srinagar, was broken by sudden sound of mosque loudspeakers. The announcement by half a dozen angry boys shocked entire village.

“Army has launched a cordon and search operation (CASO) in Hufu village,” one of the boys shouted on the microphone. “Dapaan Aqib Bhai cheh fasit (Aqib Bhai is said to be trapped). We appeal all of you to rush out and help him escape. There is no time to waste.”

As the young boys took turns to repeat the message, Abdul Khaliq Bhat, 55, a farmer, who lives at five minutes’ walk from the mosque, suddenly felt darkness in front of his eyes.

Second among his three sons, Aqib Ahmad Bhat, 27, alias Aqib Molvi, had joined Burhan Wani led Hizb-ul-Mujahideen in late 2013.

Within five minutes of the first announcement, Bhat summoned his entire family and assembled them in the living room of his modest two-storey house.

Bhat’s wife Amina Bano, 50, who was just back from Srinagar, where she had undergone a Mammogram test to confirm her ailment, joined at the last. As she walked in, she looked pale and tired. So did her youngest son Suhail, 16, a mechanic, who had accompanied her to Shri Mahraja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital in Srinagar. At the hospital, while undergoing tests, Amina was told to be ready for the worst. Shattered, Amina came home only to learn that her militant son was trapped inside a residential house in nearby Hufu village. “I was devastated, not by doctor’s warning, but for my son’s safety,” said Amina.

With loudspeakers still muffling in the distance, Bhat didn’t feel the need to explain anything to his family. Instead, he broke down as his militant son’s name pierced the village airwaves repeatedly. As small boys, women and children, elders and youngsters marched towards Hafu, the village bordering Nazneenpora, Bhat and his wife sat inside their house, praying and waiting for a miracle. At 6:30 pm, their hope for miracle dashed when they heard gunshots, a burst fire, most likely fired by the army. In the following hours, Amina heard many such burst fires, and with each of them her heart skipped a beat, as she knew this one could be the last. But to everyone’s surprise the gun-battle raged throughout the night, for over twenty hours.

Abdul Khaliq Bhat, father Aqib Ahmad Bhat.

Almost nine hours after the first gunshot, at around 3 am, there was a brief silence; the silence that carpeted Nazneenpora and nearby Hafu village – both shaded by walnut trees and protected by a hillock in the east.

From Books to Guns

The rest of the night, Amina spent squeezed in a corner of her room, helplessly looking out of her window, trying to recall her first meeting with her son, after he had joined militant ranks some three years back. “He came home after six-months of joining militancy,” recalls Amina. “I told him to quit and come back. But he refused politely. He said, ‘I have chosen my path already’.”

When Amina and other family members pressed, Aqib and his two militant companions to stay for the night or, at least, join them for dinner, they refused politely. “I was amazed to see how six-months of militant life had changed my son,” recalls Amina. “They left within five minutes of their arrival. I wish I could have stopped him that night.” But Aqib and his associates left as swiftly as they had come.

After a brief lull, when the exchange of fire resumed at first light in Hafu, Amina began thinking of her son’s journey from a shy religious boy to a wanted militant. On December 23, 2015, police released posters featuring seven top militants including Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, Zakir Musa, Ishaq Newton and Aqib Molvi. The posters promised reward for anyone who would give information about their whereabouts. “I was hard to believe that my son’s name was there,” said Amina. “He was an ordinary Imam. At least that is what we knew.”

But Aqib’s journey from a religious boy, who quit his studies in ninth standard, to join a Dar-ul-Uloom (religious seminary) in nearby Tral town, with an intention to memorise the Quran, was unordinary. It followed a trajectory that only Aqib could see and control. For the rest of his family, including his farmer father, who was happy with his son’s choice of career, and thus never bothered him with household matters, Aqib was just a deen’dar ladka (religious boy). “I never thought he would join militants. He was interested in gaining religious knowledge,” said Bhat.

His thirst for knowledge that took Aqib to Srinagar within a year of his arrival in Tral town. In Srinagar, Aqib joined Dar-ul-Uloom Qasmiyah as a student with a wish to memorise Quran. “It took him four years to do so,” said Bhat proudly. During these years, Aqib rarely visited home. “We were happy that he was on the right path,” said Bhat.

In 2010, after Aqib was finally a Hafiz-e-Quran (a person who memorises Quran entirely), he came back home. “But he didn’t stay here for long,” said Bhat.

Within a few days of his arrival, Aqib joined another Dar-ul-Uloom, this time in Chak village near Noorpura, some six kilometres from his home. Here he was both student and a teacher, who would also lead prayers in the local mosque. This earned Aqib the title of Movli (a person who leads prayers) – a tag he would carry along into the world of militancy.

After spending exactly one year in Chak, Aqib’s mother insisted him to come back; a decision she would later regret. “Had I known he would go away forever, I would have never asked him to come back,” said Amina.

However, once back in Nazneenpora, Aqib instantly became a respected figure among young and elders. Within days of his comeback, he was approached by village elders with a request to lead prayers in local Hanfia Masjid, one of the seven mosques in Nazneenpora. “He agreed quickly as he was comfortable being a Molvi,” said Bhat.

For next two years, Aqib hardly moved outside of his village as he had to lead prayers five times a day in the mosque, located at five minutes’ walk from his house.

In his free time, Aqib would sit in his room, a part of which he had converted into a library. He had a collection of religious books worth over rupees forty thousand, his entire life’s savings. “He followed a set routine. At least that is what we thought,” said Bhat.

In July 2013, before the start of Ramzan, the holy month of fasting, Aqib was requested to lead special prayers in Tral’s Nawpora village. “Since he was Hifz-e-Quran, he was the most sought after Imam during Ramzan,” said Bhat.

After getting a go ahead from his village elders, Aqib packed his bags and left for Nawpora. “He came back after celebrating Eid there,” recalls Bhat. “But this time we noticed change in his behaviour. He was different.”

To everyone’s surprise, Aqib started taking pains in the family affairs. He also started helping his father in the fields managing agriculture land and apple orchards. However, with every passing day, Aqib masked himself in a mysterious silence.

It was in the fall of 2013, that Aqib’s silence reached its climax, and he decided to “cross the line”. “I guess he had already made up his mind,” feels Amina.

That night, after dinner, when Aqib sat in front of his mother, one last time, he tried to look as calm as he could be. Then, without looking at his mother’s face, Aqib told her that he had to lead prayers in Bijbehara town for five day.

“He said his Imam friend’s grandmother had passed away and he has to replace him for a few days,” recalls Amina.

The next morning, when Aqib left for Bijbehara, he showed no oddity in his behaviour and left as usual.

The Search

On the sixth day, when Aqib didn’t return as promised, his father called him on his mobile-phone, but it was switched off. “I was afraid something bad had happened to him,” said Amina. “So we started looking for him.”

For next two days, Aqib’s father and his brothers visited every single Dar-ul-Uloom and mosque in Bijbehara town and its adjoining areas, but without any luck. “I called almost all his friends,” said Bhat. “But nobody had any clue.”

Then, on the eighth day of Aqib’s disappearance, a constable from Tral Police Station came looking for his elder brother Touseef Ahmad Bhat, now 30, a carpenter. Without mentioning Aqib, the constable told Touseef that local Deputy Superintendent of Police (DySP) wanted to see him. “Sahbas cheh bed zorarth (Sahab wants a new bed),” the constable told Touseef.

Touseef, who is known in the area for his workmanship, accompanied the constable without giving a second thought.

The same afternoon, an army party came to Bhat’s house and asked him to visit Shikargah Camp, located in Tral. “I quickly started connecting the dots. I now knew it had something to do with Aqib,” recalls Bhat.

Within half-an-hour, Bhat, along with the Nazneenpora village head and few other elders , was inside army’s Shikargah garrison. There, a major rank army officer politely asked Bhat about his son Aqib’s whereabouts. “I told him what I knew,” said Bhat. “But the officer was not convinced.”

Then, in an unusually sympathetic tone, the officer told Bhat that they fear Aqib had joined Hizb. “I didn’t know how to react so I kept looking at his face in complete disbelief,” recalls Bhat.

For next three hours, a junior officer grilled Bhat about his son’s life, his education, relatives, friends, the places he would visit, and the places he wanted to visit.

At 10:30 pm, when Bhat finally came home, exhausted and heartbroken, he assembled his two sons and wife in their small kitchen and broke the news.

Then Bhat’s eldest son Touseef, who had been called by the DySP, said, “The bed was just an excuse. They too were looking for Aqib.”

Except Amina’s occasional sobs, there was no other sound audible in the house that night.

On the twelfth day of his disappearance, Bhat finally visited Police Station Tral and filed a missing report. But, by that time, Aqib’s name was on almost every youngster’s tongue. “Everyone knew he had joined Burhan,” said Bhat.

However, that didn’t stop Bhat and his sons search for Aqib. They tried everything they could to get him back before it was too late. Every morning, they would visit a new village or an area, mostly in Tral peripheries, to look for him. At the same time, they would be called to army camp and police station regularly. “Thank Allah we were never harassed,” said Bhat. “But it was difficult to manage the stress.”

This routine Bhat and his two sons followed for next three months till they were convinced Aqib would not come back.

But for Aqib’s mother Amina, giving up like this was not an option. “How would a mother stop looking for her son,” she would tell her husband.

It was on Amina’s insistence that Bhat visited a local Pir (holy man or soothsayer) in Tral to seek “divine help” in tracing his son. The Pir told him that Aqib will be back soon. In a way the Pir was both right and wrong. Aqib did come back, but not to stay. “He (Aqib) knew religion better than any of us. How could a Pir have helped? Still I sought his help for my wife’s sake,” said Bhat with a smile on his face.

Funeral and phone call

At around 5 pm, on Sunday, roughly eighteen hours after Amina heard first round of bullets, the encounter in Hufu village was officially declared over. For a few minutes, there was complete silence near the encounter site. Then at once, almost every mosque in Tral town started playing songs eulogising militants. “We knew he was gone,” said Amina. “I was waiting for him at home. I knew he will be here finally.”
In Hufu, as army edged closer towards the blasted house, where Aqib and a non-local militant Umar was trapped all night, a series of gunshots, fired from inside the debris, pushed them back again.
This set-off another round of firing. A high ranking police official later told reporters that one of the militants, most likely Aqib, survived even after the house was blasted. “He acted dead and when army went to retrieve bodies, he fired at them,” he told reporters.
The news of Aqib’s “rise from ashes” was greeted by loud cheers by youngsters who had assembled near the encounter site and high pitched sloganeering. It raised a mother’s hopes too.
But two hours later, there was silence again, as both the trapped militants were finally killed. The 20-hour long gunfight had left a trail of blood. Apart from Aqib and Umar, a Special Operation Group (SOG) policeman, Manzoor Ahmad Naik, was also killed in the gun battle. Also, three army personnel including a Major rank officer were injured.

At around 7:30 pm, while Amina waited at home, Aqib and Umar’s partially charred bodies were taken to police station Tral. Immediately, Bhat, along with his brother and the local village head, drove to police station Tral, in a Sumo taxi, to get his son’s body. “At 9:30 pm, after completing formalities, we were handed over Aqib’s body,” said Bhat.

In the darkness of the night, as the taxi carrying Aqib’s body reached Nazneenpora, Amina, who was waiting at the front gate, rushed towards it seeking her dead son’s attention.

Before Amina could have reached Aqib, hundreds of mourners carried her son’s body in, and kept him inside his room. For next ten hours, Amina and her family sat around Aqib’s body, looking at each other is complete silence. “I will always cherish that night. I have no regrets,” said Amina.

In last three years of Aqib’s militant life, Amina had prepared herself for this day. Every night, before going to bed, she would console herself that Aqib would be back soon. However, deep inside, she knew Aqib’s fate was sealed. “But how can a mother not keep hope,” she asks.

The next morning at 7:30 am, Aqib’s body was taken to nearby Hanfia mosque, where he used to lead prayers, and placed at the edge of its spacious ground for mourners to have one last look. As the crowd swelled with every passing hour, Amina struggled to keep her eyes fixed on her son’s face from a distance.

At 11:30 am, just before the first round of funerals began, Amina’s daughter-in-law, a tiny but agile girl, who married her eldest son Touseef in 2014, came running towards her with a phone in hand. It was the doctor from SMHS hospital in Srinagar. “Your test report has come. You must visit Srinagar at once,” the doctor told Amina, without knowing what had befallen her.

Under construction house of Abdul Khaliq Bhat.

Frustrated, Amina disconnected the call without telling the caller what had happened and where she was. “She then told me to call him back and let him know about her situation,” said Amina’s daughter-in-law.

The doctor, who had done her Mammography, apologised quickly but insisted that Amina would have to visit SMHS soon.

At 2:30 pm, after five rounds of funerals, when Aqib was finally buried, Amina’s family managed to assemble in their kitchen and decide what to do next. “Aqib is gone. Nobody could bring him back now,” Bhat told his grief struck family; his voice dinned by wails of thousands of mourners, still camped in Nazneenpora for his son Aqib. “I cannot lose you too now,” he told Amina emotionally. “You must go to SMHS hospital tomorrow.”

Mourning and Cancer

The next day of her son’s burial, while mourners were still visiting her home, Amina along with five relatives boarded a car and drove through deserted roads to reach Srinagar.

Once at SMHS hospital in Srinagar, Amina went straight to the person who had called her. “They did a few test on emergency basis,” said Amina.

When the concerned doctor took a look at her reports, his expression changed. He looked at Amian with concerned eyes, not knowing what she had gone through in last 36 hours and said, “I have a bad news for you”.

Then with a bit of hesitation in his voice, the doctor struggled for right words to convey Amina what was there in the reports. “I told him not to worry. Just tell me what it (reports) says,” Amina told him calmly. The same calmness Amina had been maintaining since last two days. “I am ready to accept whatever Allah has decided for me.”

After a brief pause, the doctor told her that she had breast cancer. As Amina looked at him in silence, the word cancer started to ring inside the doctor’s small chamber.

At 4 pm, Amina and others were back in Nazneenpora, where hundreds of mourners were still camped inside her house.

For next one month, Amina visited SMHS hospital in Srinagar regularly for radio therapy. On her second visit, a young lady doctor from Srinagar, who recognised Amina from her son’s funeral pictures, came to her assistance. “That day onwards, she used to be with me whenever I visited SMHS hospital,” said Amina. “She was very kind and helpful.”

After six months in October 2017, Amina was operated at SKIMS, and since then, she has been on medication. “I have no regret in life. It is Allah’s will,” said Amina. “Allah wants to test my patience. I am okay with whatever he decides.”

But for Amina and her family the test of patience was far from over. There were more miseries in store for her.

House is gone

On June 19, 2018, at around 11:30 am, Amina and her daughter-in-law were home when someone knocked on the kitchen window. When Amina’s daughter-in-law went out to check who it was, she almost froze with fear. “There were two militants, one local and one Pakistani. But only Pakistani had a gun,” said Amina’s daughter-in-law.

They told Amina’s daughter-in-law that they wanted to come in for a while, as they were expecting another militant at this spot. “Once he comes, we will leave,” the local militant told her.

But when Amina saw them, she started to shiver with fear. “Before Aqib was killed, I used to fight with Army whenever they visited or raided our house. But after his death, my heart is weak now,” said Amina apologetically.

Quickly, both the militants sat in the living room, while Amina started pacing inside the kitchen in fear and confusion. Amina’s daughter-in-law, who had grown in Tral peripheries, calmed her down and said, “Try to control yourself, they are not going to stay here forever.”

When it didn’t help, she added with a bit of sarcasm: “Wasn’t your son staying at peoples’ houses when he was a militant? So how can you say no to them?”

Almost two hours later the third militant, Adil from nearby Midoora village of Tral, who had joined militant outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad just two days back came to Amina’s house.

Aqib Ahmad Bhat

At 3:30 pm, within half-an-hour of his arrival at Amina’s house, the entire Nazneenpora village was cordoned by the army and police. “As there was no way for them to escape, we left the house quickly,” said Amina.

Almost three hours later, the first gunshot was fired. Amina and her family, who had by now taken refuge inside a relative’s house in the villager, were helpless once again.

“They were three men with a single gun. I knew they won’t last long,” said Amina. “But still, I started praying for their safety, hoping no other mother loses her son.”

For next five hours, Amina heard loud blasts and heavy exchange of gunshots, which she knew were hitting her house. At half-past mid-night, there was complete silence. All three militants holed inside her house were killed. Once the army left, Amina’s husband and two sons, along with hundreds of villagers, rushed to see what remains of the house. “It was blasted to pieces,” said Amina.

Then next morning, when Amina walked towards the place where her house stood a day ago, she couldn’t help but cry out loudly. “This house was built by my son Aqib. He worked like a labourer to construct it,” cried Amina, her wails piercing the aftermath calm of Nazneenpora. “How long you will test my patience?”

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