Blood in Rice

South Kashmir has emerged as a belt where the army moves in a sort of flag march to enforce the writ of the state. There are scores of instances in which unarmed civilians jump into cordons, near encounter sites, to rescue rebels. But this belt was so scared of a soldier in 1991 that even they would hide into paddy fields. Javid Sofi tells the story of three villages deep into fertile Pulwama lands when most of the 16 civilians were killed while hiding in paddy fields

It was Sunday afternoon; September 1, 1991, when a few vehicles carrying paramilitary Border Security Force (BSF) were moving towards Niloora, a hamlet on Pulwama –Sangam road that joins the highway at Bijbehara. Hemmed by a karewa on one side, Niloora is around 20 kms from Pulwama town.

Coincidently, the same day and almost the same time, three militants were moving into the village in a tunga, the horse driven cart, from opposite end. The two faced each other in village outskirts near Dard –e-Koot. Surprised by the presence of the BSF, militants opened fire.

“The face to face gunfight between militants and BSF created panic in the village,” recalls Wali Mohammad Ganie, an aged Niloora resident. “Many residents fled from their homes.”

It was the first ever gun-fight between rebels and paramilitary men in the village after militancy broke out in Kashmir in 1989. Ganie still shivers on recalling the horrors of that day. Ganie says those were the days when sight of a soldier or a paramilitary man would send shivers down your spine.

“Then it was a common practice for villagers to hide in paddy fields on hearing about advancement of army towards their localities,” Ganie said. Then, a few villagers were routinely assigned the duty of keep an eye on the movement of army, during nights, a practice that started from Batamaloo in 1990. This practice was called Roundh, meaning the villagers assigned the duty will stay awake whole night, making rounds throughout the village. In case, they trace the soldiers coming, they would beat empty tin containers, and make sleeping population aware. These operations were aimed to stay ready for cordon and searches so that they do not face humiliation of being dragged out of their bed rooms. Beating of the containers would inform the entire belt about the operation as well.

During those amorphous years of militancy, people would not be able to distinguish between BSF, CRPF and the army. Generally, they all would be called Fauj, the army. The practice of identity cards was still not in vogue, especially in the peripheral Kashmir.

Scare apart, the encounter took place. It led to the killing of local militant commander, Farooqi. A resident of Mattan, the commander was killed but both of his accomplices managed to escape. The two crossed a nearby stream, running parallel to Pulwama–Sangam road, and simply vanished into surrounding paddy fields.

The gun fight broke out in the afternoon, at a time when villagers, mostly peasants, were settled for their daily chores. Soldiers, encouraged by the “kill” decided to chase the two who fled. They ran after them firing indiscriminately. Many villagers, who were working in the paddy fields, were hit by the bullets.

Bullets helped news spread faster. Soon Niloora knew that Mohammad Sidiq Khan, 37, a farmer, was shot dead by BSF in his paddy fields near Dard-e-Koot. “Khan was irrigating his paddy fields when army, mistaking him as a militant, shot him dead,” recalls Mushtaq Ahmad Mir, another Niloora resident.

Khan’s body was lying in the paddy fields for the whole day and following night as most of the villagers had fled away.  So he was the scare that nobody attempted trying to retrieve the body. Those, who had stayed put in the village, were too frightened to come out of their houses.

It was on September 2, almost 20 hours later, that the villagers went into the paddy fields and retrieved Khan’s body which was found in a prostrated condition.

While Khan was retrieved from his fields dead, there were various villagers who were still not reported home. The villagers started searching for missing residents. Soon, pall of gloom fell in Niloora as three more dead bodies were retrieved from the fields.

One of them was Abdul Qayoom Bhat, a twelfth class student, who was preparing for annual examinations at home. When he heard gun shots, he ran away from home into the paddy fields to hide. Villagers said that the paratroopers caught his sight while he was running into the paddy fields; he was fired up on at his back.

Qayoom’s elder brother, Mohammad Ayoub Bhat, then 20, had fled to Wasoora, a village few kilometers from Niloora. Next day, when he returned home, he found his brother missing. He could not believe his eyes when he found his brother’s corpse drenched in blood.

Ayoub breaks down on recalling the memories of that horrific scene. Even though 28 years have passed since then, he starts weeping bitterly as if he is seeing it vividly, again and again. Living with wife and children, in a nice single-storey house, Ayoub’s memories have not faded. He has kept a black and white photograph of his good looking brother mounted on the wall in his bedroom. It is his habit to stop a bit in front of the wall and look at the photograph once every day. He wants to retain the memories.

Qayoom’s death, Ayoub said, shattered Bhats’. A few days after his killing, his results were announced and he figured in the best performers. Their mother was severely traumatized, became a psychiatric patient and passed away in the separation induced melancholy.

The other two people who were killed in the firing included Abdul Ahad Ganie, 49, a farmer and Mohammad Afzal Ganie, 27, a government employee in state forest cooperation.

Tragically, the dead couldn’t be immediately laid to rest because most of the villagers had fled away. Those who had stayed put or could not flee were detained during house to house search. A total of 40 residents were detained. They were released a month later. Among the detained was Ghulam Mohammad Ganie, son of Abdul Ahad, who was killed. The son still regrets that he could not participate in his father’s funeral prayers.

The four slain residents were buried in courtyard of Niloora’s central mosque.

The BSF didn’t stop in Niloora. They moved into adjacent villages, Aglar and Safnagri, which now fall in Shopian district.

Residents in Aglar said that at around 7: 30 pm that day, five residents were dragged out from their houses by BSF’s 142 battalion on the pretext that they must guide them to Safnagri, a neighbouring village separated from Aglar by a karewa.

Abdul Gani, 85, a resident of Safnagri recalls that a graduate student, Ghulam Nabi Ganie was first person who fell to BSF firing. “He had walked few steps out of his house when BSF personnel shot him dead,” recalls Gani. He was killed in his courtyard. Villagers were frightened so much that nobody mustered courage to come out of their houses to retrieve his dead body till next morning. “Ganie was carrying one rupee coin in his fist as he was on way to buy tobacco for his father from a nearby shop.”

Gani said he himself fled. He ran into nearby orchards, and hid behind an elevation for the whole night.

Before the BSF opened guns, Mohammad Ayoub Koka, a well built teenager, had walked out of his home to spend some time with his friends. Koka and his friends had passed their graduation examinations. On that evening they were celebrating their success by talking to each other till late hours in one corner of the village.  They were discussing their further studies; little knowing that death was hovering over their heads and would take them away in few seconds.

Next morning when some degree of normalcy prevailed in Safnagri, many residents were found missing. These included Koka and his friends. A search led to Koka’s recovery from the village Karewa. He was found in pieces.

The worst was yet to come. The searching villagers retrieved 12 dead bodies, which were scattered on the karewa.  Five villagers, who were picked up at Aglar for guiding the soldiers to Safnagri were among the dead. Soon, the Safnagri residents were moving the dead to Aglar where they were buried in village graveyard at the base of the karewa. They were Abdul Gani Rather, 31, Farooq Ahmad Rather, 16, Gull Mohammad Rather, 35, Mohammad Ramzan, 45, and Mohammad Ramzan, 21.

There were funerals here and there, wails and cries from the entire belt. That day Safnagri buried its eight residents: Nazir Ahmad Wani, 30, Mohammad Yousuf Yatoo, 30, Hameed Ullah Wani, 24, Nazir Ahmad Bhat, 30, Ghulam Nabi Ganie, 32, Fayaz Ahmad Dar, 17, Bashir Ahmad Dar, 24 and Mohammad Ayoub Koka, 20. They are buried at Safnagri graveyard on the Karewa.

Few years’ latter government announced ex-gratia for affected families. One member from each affected family was provided government employment. But the villagers are still waiting for justice. Officials at police station at Pulwama said they will take some time to trace the file and see if there was any follow up.

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