It started with the burial of his son in the orchard that was supposed to grow apple and bring prosperity. As years passed by, the octogenarian Abdul Ahad Bhat ended up laying to rest eleven members of his family in the perhaps first ever private cemetery in Ganderbal. Shams Irfan and Ruwa Shah meet the old man who witnessed the worst but survived.
In last two decades eighty-year-old Abdul Ahad Bhat, has buried eleven of his relatives, including his teenage son and brother in a graveyard that used to be his orchard.
Every morning Bhat would walk past a small brook, through a thick cover of willow and walnut trees, to visit the graveyard. After his son, Farooq Ahmad Bhat, alias Aslam was killed in a gun battle in Bandipora in 1993, Bhat decided to bury him in a piece of land near his house.
But little did he know that within no time the graveyard would be full with the people he knew, grew up with, and shared joys and sorrows of life.
At the peak of armed conflict between Kashmiri militants and Indian forces, death became a frequent visitor to Bhat’s household in Takiabal (Lar), a small village in Ganderbal district famous for its grape vineyards.
Carrying a walking stick, not to lean on but to keep stray dogs away, Bhat goes to the graveyard to meet his relatives.
One day a foreign journalist came to see Bhat and asked him how many people were killed in Kashmir during last two decades of conflict. She told him that there are conflicting versions regarding the number of deaths in Kashmir. “I don’t know about entire Kashmir. I never had time to count deaths happening in other parts of Kashmir. But I can say for sure that I have lost almost my entire family to the conflict,” Bhat told the visiting journalist. “I have buried them all so there is no doubt about their number,” said Bhat plainly.
“They (Army) would kill them and send them here. I only know how many I buried,” said Bhat, sarcastically.
Out of twelve people buried in Bhat’s orchard turned graveyard, six are his close relatives, five are relatives from his wife’s side and one foreign militant named Abdullah.
Bhat’s son Farooq was 18 when he was killed in a gun battle with army in Bandipora. He had just passed his 10th standard examination and joined militant outfit Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.
After his son’s death Bhat’s household became a regular stopover for army and government backed gunmen Ikhwanis. “They used to come at all odd hours to harass me and my family,” says Bhat.
On one occasion when there were inputs about movement of foreign militants in the area, Bhat was arrested. He was taken to a local army camp. “There I was produced before an high ranking army officer who after looking at my wrinkled face offered me a chair and said, ‘you seem to be a good Muslim. It doesn’t suit you to side with militants,’” says Bhat. “I told him that I have no knowledge about militants. I am a Muslim and I am not lying,” says Bhat.
After looking at his face for a while the army officer ordered his junior to let Bhat go. “He really does not know anything. He won’t lie,” army officer told his junior.
For a few years Bhat was not bothered by men in uniform. “But once that officer was transferred. The entire cycle of harassment restarted,” says Bhat.
The new army unit that arrived in Lar brought new set of woes for Bhat. “The very next day they raided my son’s graveyard and desecrated graves. They damaged gravestones on almost all graves,” says Bhat. “They left a trail of destruction behind them. There were empty wine bottles all over the place.”
Bhat, who has travelled to Syria, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, says he is ready to pay any price to keep his son’s memory alive. “They can kill me for being a militant’s father. But they cannot kill the resentment inside me against their oppression,” says Bhat.
After Bhat’s son was killed, he was devastated. He shut himself in his room and cried for days. It was senior separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani’s hand written note, which now hangs in a wooden frame in his room, that gave him courage to fight on. “He sent this letter to me acknowledging our family’s contribution to the freedom struggle,” says Bhat whose face lit as he read the first few lines of the letter.
Geelani used one of Alama Iqbal’s famous couplet to encourage Bhat. Geelani wrote: Un Shaheedon Ki Diyat Ahle-e-Kalisa Se Na Mang, Qadar-o-Qeemat Mein Hai Khoon Jin Ka Haram Se Badh Kar (Their blood is precious and divine. Like precincts of the Holy Shrine). “This letter helps me keep going in my life,” says Bhat.
The graveyard that is spread on eight kanals of land is Bhat’s ancestral orchard. “I used to accompany my father to this orchard since I was a kid,” recalls Bhat.
After the orchard was turned into a graveyard, Bhat received many requests from his friends and acquaintances who wanted to be buried there. “They consider this place as pious and want to rest near martyrs,” says Bhat. “But I am now fed up of watching bodies go in my orchard. Enough is enough.”
Bhat says that these orchards that once were famous for fine quality grapes and apples are soaked in martyrs blood. Pointing towards a grave, Bhat says, this man (Mohammad Maqbool Magray) was a field officer with agriculture department. He was killed in cold blood by Ikhwanis while on his way to Ganderbal to bring back a local militant’s body. “They (army) did not allow his burial in his ancestral graveyard and he ended up here,” says Bhat.
Cleaning his son’s gravestone, Bhat says that he has seen enough bloodshed in his life. “Sometime living long could be painful.”
Death in Repora
In early 90s, on a hot summer afternoon in Repora, a small village in cetral Kashmir’s Ganderbal district, famous for its grape yards, when most of the men had retired to their home after days toil, Ghulam Mohammad Rather, a shopkeeper, saw somebody running towards his shop.
It was his friend Ghulam Mohammad Magray, a mild mannered farmer who lived in the next alley. When Magray reached near Rather’s shop he was already out of breath. It took him a while to regain his composure and speak. They knew each other since childhood.
Without giving Rather a chance to say anything Magray began, “My son has achieved martyrdom. Can you please help me bring his body home?”
He said it so calmly that Rather was not sure if he has heard Magray right.
“Who is killed? I mean who killed him? Are you sure it’s him?” asked Rather in broken syllables. Trying hard not to show any sign of pain, Magray said softly that his twenty-one-year-old son Ghulam Hassan Magray, a Hizb ul Mujahideen militant, attained martyrdom this afternoon while fighting with army in Ganderbal. “Please help me bring my son back. I fear they (Army) will desecrate his body,” his voice has now turned in to a pleading tone.
Rather immediately closed his shop and rushed towards his house to inform his family about Hassan’s death. He told his wife that he is going to Ganderbal with Magray to get Hassan’s body back. Before his wife could have said anything Rather was out of the house. “I could hardly say goodbye to my family,” recalls Rather.
From there Rather went straight to his childhood friend’s house. His friend, Mohammad Maqbool Magray, a filed officer in agriculture department knew both Ghulam Hassan Magray and his son Hassan personally. Rather asked Maqbool to accompany them to Ganderbal. “Maqbool agreed readily and advised Hassan’s father to stay back while we get his son,” recalls Rather. But Hassan’s father was adamant and wanted to accompany them to Ganderbal and see where encounter had taken place. “He was not thinking straight at that time. It took us a while to convince Hassan’s father to stay back and wait for us,” recalls Rather. “I promise, I will bring your son’s body back,” Rather remembers Maqbool telling Hassan’s father.
Finally Hassan’s father got convinced and decided to wait at home. But little did Maqbool know that this one promise he won’t be able to keep.
Before they left, Rather and Maqbool, decided to take a few elders from their village along. “It will help us ward off any trouble on our way to Ganderbal,” said Rather.
Within no time Rather, his friend Maqbool and three other elders from their village left for Ganderbal to get Hassan’s body. “As we crossed the main road we saw a speeding vehicle approaching towards us,” remembers Rather.
They instantly recognized the vehicle. It belonged to the government backed gunmen locally known as Ikhwanis. The vehicle came to a halt in front of them blocking their way. “Within no time four or five men jumped out of the vehicle and surrounded us. They had their guns pointed at us,” recalls Rather.
Both Rather and Maqbool looked at each other. “lineh ruziv,” (form a line) ordered one of the armed men who was wearing a black bandana and looked like a villain from a B grade Bollywood film. “His words still echo in my head. I knew instantly that we have crossed the devil’s way,” recalls Rather. Rather was right, it was going to be a bloody, hot and dry day. As they formed line Rather and Maqbool exchanged glances. It was kind of a goodbye between childhood friends. They knew exactly what was about to happen. “I saw a faint smile cross Maqbool’s face. That smile said it all,” says Rather.
As they stood in line, Rather recognized one of the armed men as Rashid Peer, a dreaded Ikhwani who was known for his ruthlessness. “The moment I saw him I knew something bad is going to happen,” recalls Rather.
Peer scanned their faces carefully and then ordered his men to search them one by one. “They took everything: our watches, wallets, rings, everything we had on us,” remembers Rather.
Then Peer ordered the three elders accompanying Rather and his childhood friend Maqbool to leave. Without saying a word or looking back towards Rather or Maqbool they began to walk towards the village slowly.
“They walked like robots. I followed them with my eyes until they faded in the distance,” remembers Rather. Once the elders were out of Rather’s sight the entire village became quite. The sound of crickets chipping in the nearby woods was the only sign of life audible in Repora village that day. Maqbool closed his eyes and was reciting slowly something. They both knew what this silence meant. “I wished for some miracle to happen. Somebody to come out of those woods and save us,” says Rather. “But nothing happened. My heart started beating fast. Then they grabbed us by our collars and dragged us through the fields.”
As they were dragged, Rather and Maqbool kept their eyes fixed at the road that led to the village hoping to see some known soul come and save them. Except the noise of their bodies that were being dragged on the rough road, Repora wore a death like silence. Nothing moved except them. “We were held just outside our village. It was barely a five minutes walk from our houses,” recalls Rather.
When they were deep in to the woods Peer and his men pushed them aside and aimed their guns at them.
Then the silence was finally broken by Peer’s shrilling voice, “Aaz koth gasekh jamatyeah. Aaz traveth neh zindeh” (You Jamat-e-Islami follower, how will you save yourself today. Today I won’t leave you alive).
“I knew it is all over now. I closed my eyes and started reciting verses from the holy Koran,” says Rather. “Then somebody kicked me hard and I fell on the ground.”
Maqbool did not look at Rather. He turned his face away and recited verses from the holy Koran loudly. Then the gunman with black bandana fixed the barrel of his gun on Rather’s head. As he was about to fire Peer intervened. “Isko to main khud maru ga sale ko,” (I will kill this bastard myself) Peer said it in such a tone that his sidekicks burst into laughter. “He shot me five times. I don’t know where I was hit but I just kept counting,” remembers Rather. A few seconds later a lone shot pierced Maqbool’s heart. He died on the spot.
Peer and his men did not leave immediately. It was only after people came running towards the spot where gunshots were fired they ran away. “I don’t know who took me to hospital or how I survived. I was shot exactly five times,” said Rather. But his friend Maqbool, who is survived by two sons and two daughters, succumbed to the single bullet that pierced his heart. “I guess Peer knew exactly that Maqbool is dead. That is why he didn’t fire another shot,” says Rather.
It was the night of terror for this village.
Rather still remembers the date exactly. “It was 23rd of June 1995,” says Rather.
Within no time the entire area was cordoned off by army. Nobody was allowed to move out of their homes.
When finally people brought Maqbool and Hassan’s bodies to the village, they were not allowed to bury them in the village graveyard. Army had cordoned all roads leading to the graveyard. In the din of the darkness villagers took Maqbool and Hassan’s bodies to nearby village Lar (2 kilometres from Repora) where they were buried in Abdul Ahad Bhat’s orchard turned graveyard for martyrs. Both Maqbool and Hassan were related to Abdul Ahad Bhat from his wife’s side.
Now Maqbool’s son Tariq visits his father’s grave almost every day. “This place gives me peace. I was just 3 when my father was killed. By coming to this place I feel closer to my father,” says Tariq.
In his free time Tariq takes care of the graveyard. “I make sure that it is clean. This place has been desecrated by army many times. They leave empty wine bottles here,” says Tariq.
Standing by his father’s grave Tariq says he has no hope for any justice. “I don’t want a job or compensation. I just want to know why my father was killed. But nobody will give me any answer that too I know,” says Tariq.
Exactly Seven months later Peer and his men were blown to pieces in a mine blast on the outskirts of Ganderbal.