Bomb Hunters

Historically, landmines have remained the lovely little things in fighters’ arsenals. In fact every conflict zone has its inventory of deaths and destruction that these devices have triggered. Kashmir has scores of minefields bordering it for decades. Laying and blasting these devices is well known, but Bilal Handoo tells the rare story of men who put off these devices from blowing up

Bomb Squad (grey)

It was one heck of a plan. A five inch, seven feet GI pipe rammed with nails, booby-traps, explosives was placed at culvert of a Kulgam bridge in mid-2000. Idea was to blow up army convoy slowing down near culvert. The brain behind the bomb was sharp enough to anticipate the damage: With bang, blown iron pieces of bridge would act as piercing projectiles and ensure maximum damage to ‘enemy’.

But somehow, the explosion didn’t go off. Shortly a Bomb Disposal Squad (BDS) arrived on spot to diffuse massive Improvised Explosive Device (IED). In the five-member team was a man from Budgam, Manzoor Khan. Love to call himself a ‘bomb hunter’, Khan dragged the explosive pipe through newly harvested fields, put it at the centre, where he dug up a deep pit to bury it. Some 100 odd sandbags were brought to cover up the explosive pit.

Four hours later, when the squad detonated the IED, not only the ground rattled, a splinter rain descended, triggering a panic run. From the blast intensity, Khan could only imagine the fate of army convoy, had militants managed to execute all six mobile codes to perfection.

Then, Khan was no novice. As a fresh recruit in early nineties, he had seen how the deadly homemade explosive devices (EDs) had become integral part of guerrilla warfare in Kashmir—then massively revolting against Indian establishment. Most of these bombs were being planted on roadside. It was unconventional combat perceived highly perilous than expected military method.

“More than anything else,” says Khan, cooling his heels in Srinagar’s Police Control Room (PCR), “those devices were used as an ultimate psychological weapon in Kashmir.” This unconventional ED use not only made BDS a busy unit, but also a key strength in state’s armoury.

But transformation took place almost suddenly because BDS was never in demand in Kashmir before nineties, says Khan. However as the ‘explosive war’ broke out in the region, EDs were frequently used to disrupt counterinsurgent operations across valley and hence threw these men in a recurrent action-loop. It was during this ‘perilous’ period, a cop from Pulwama got his posting in bomb squad.

The new posting seemed fatal for Mushtaq, who was shortly attending a series of ‘bomb calls’. “There were times when around twenty calls a day would buzz PCR and set us in a tizzy mode,” says Mushtaq. But now, the worst seems over for BDS.

The calls have gone down, so have BDS casualties. Behind the plunge was the decision of 13-member militant alliance, the United Jihad Council (UJC) that it would not use landmines anymore in Kashmir. The statement released by UJC on October 16, 2007 even impressed United Nations. But the decision wasn’t taken without prior notice. There was a man behind it: Khurram Parvez—the rights activist who lost his leg and a colleague Asiya Jeelani to an IED in Kupwara on April 20, 2004, while monitoring elections there.

To convince UJC, Khurram went to “Azad Kashmir” where he met chiefs of all the militant groups, including Hizb chief Syed Salahuddin. “They promised to abide by the humanitarian norms of the Geneva Convention, which says they cannot use such weapons where there could be civilian casualties,” says Khurram.

The decision was hailed in J&K where landmines and IEDs had devoured 1076 persons till 2012 (according to a census report by Project Manager Handicap International). Fifty percent landmine victims, notably, were children.

But while the militant leadership agreed to ban landmines, it disagreed to stop using IEDs and grenades, which they said, “were their most potent weapons”. Interestingly, while an IED (an unconventional warfare weapon used by guerrillas) is commonly used as roadside bombs, a landmine (a weapon for conventional warfare) is an explosive device concealed under or on ground. It detonates automatically by pressure when a target steps on it or drives over it.

“Today’s militants are very smart and accurate in executing the target unlike those of nineties who would resort to hit and trail methods,” says Maqbool Ali, a bomb diffuser from Baramulla. “Militants keep us guessing. Every time they plant an IED, they resort to different triggers—time, tilt, pressure, delay…” Earlier, he says, the explosives were mainly detonated by remote control, but now they are mostly chemical-driven. “This is where it is becoming very dangerous.”

A bomb disposal squad man carrying the IED for diffusing in Narbal on the outskirts of Srinagar on November 21, 2015. Army and paramilitary troopers claimed to have recovered an IED near the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road. PHOTO BY BILAL BAHADUR
A BDS man carrying IED for diffusing in Narbal on the outskirts of Srinagar on November 21, 2015. (Photos: Bilal Bahadur/KL)

Amid ‘war of wits’ and swift technology shift, these ‘bomb hunters’ are predicting a tough combating time ahead. Apart from the evolution of bombs from Ordnance to IEDs, some bombs now explode on human shadow (silhouette of the target), thus making the task daunting for BDS. “This leaves no margin of error for us,” says Ali.

Even then, the “for granted” approach hasn’t fully ebbed out, thereby mounting miseries for bomb squad. In one ‘turbulent day’ in 1992, the same approach perished three BDS members.

That day, a massive explosive material was found outside Srinagar’s Shergarhi police station. As a ‘bomb call’ mobilised three squad men, they straightaway went too close to device without ‘sticking to safety’ guidelines. Soon a blast was heard. And the next moment, the trio were spotted dead at three corners of a nearby street.

Today, such accidents might be rare in view of sophisticated gadgetry and expertise at work, but perils to operate in conflict territory continue to unnerve these men. “That’s why I make it sure to call my family first before cutting an IED wire,” says Mushtaq Khan, a bomb handler from Shopian, “because you never know, what happens next!”

By freely expressing his fears, Khan almost sounds like members of the Iraq War Explosive Ordnance Disposal team in a Hollywood flick, Hurt Locker (2008).

“Well, everyone is a coward about something, you know?”

“Another two inches, shrapnel zings by, slices my throat, I bleed out like a pig in the sand. Nobody will give a shit. I mean my parents – they care – but….”

“So, how many bombs have you disarmed?”

“Eight hundred seventy-three, sir,” replies Sergeant James.

“That’s a record…”

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Well, there is someone in BDS Srinagar who claims to have diffused more bombs than Sergeant James of Hurt Locker.

Pulwama’s Aslam Bhat boasts of diffusing over 1000 explosives during his nearly three-decade long BDS career. Behind his longevity and record is his ‘biblical’ belief: Play Safe. Throughout his career, Bhat has acted as per the book. He calls Sir Vivian Dering Majendie—the Royal Artillery major who set up world’s first bomb squad—his idol.

“When I joined the squad in 1991, fear of death was running high in entire bomb squad due to rampant explosions,” says Bhat, a senior pro, dearly referred as ‘grandpa’ by his juniors. “Then, it was very important to make ourselves believe that we are only doing our duty — a different kind of firefighting.” And yes, he says, the belief clicked.

Soon on his senior’s suggestion, Bhat learned the tactics of New York City Police Department’s celebrated “Italian Squad”—a bomb squad famed for countering bombs used by Mafia to threaten immigrant Italians. “But unlike mafia,” says Bhat, “we were combating bombs used by our own armed men. Since we were only doing our job, so we adapted the same tactics: curb the crisis.” But averting crisis was never a cakewalk—especially when Kashmir’s ‘bomb hunters’ were also dealing with the delayed-action fuzes.

An expert of the bomb disposal squad prepares to defuse a grenade that was hurled towards a patrol of paramilitary and policemen, but failed to go off in Srinagar, on 22 January 2010. Security has been stepped up in Kashmir and other parts of India ahead of Republic Day ceremonies which falls on 26 January 2010, marking the day in 1950 when the country adopted its republican constitution photo by bilal bahadur
A BDS man prepares to defuse a grenade hurled towards a patrol of paramilitary party, but failed to go off in Srinagar, on January 22. 2010.

Notably, a different panic had taken over BDS during nineties when Kashmir’s armed groups resorted to UXBs (unexploded bombs)—first employed during the Spanish Civil War (1936–37). Such delayed-action bombs with uncertain timings were too tough to handle. “It was complicated task to disarm UXBs,” says Showkat Mir, a former BDS member. “Militants were learning fast and were pushing us to extreme. They knew that unexploded bombs caused more disturbance than instantly exploding bombs.”

To tackle these bombs, Kashmir’s BDS was attending new training sessions. They were learning new techniques, including making and unmaking of commonly used arsenals, like shrapnel-based belts and massive IEDs.

“But the greater challenge came in late ninety, when the guerrilla outfit, Hizb resorted to series of IED blasts across valley,” says Mir. “Our men while risking their lives disarmed and detonated thousands of lab bombs, explosive charges and ammunition.”

This unconventional warfare made Srinagar’s PCR a hyper-action zone—where BDS were literally on their toes. These men equip with ‘limited’ tools would go examine explosive sites frequently. Upon reaching, the BDS in-charge would take ‘the lonely walk’ toward the device to render it ineffective by dismantling its elements – pressure plates, battery pack, wires and detonator.

Once rendered safe, BDS would hand over the device to Intelligence guy, who photograph it before sending it to laboratory for analysis. But their job wasn’t over there. They would also escort VIPs and dignitaries besides accompany specialist police units and entry teams with booby-trap tracking devices.

But primarily, it was a ‘bomb call’, which is still making these men to ‘lose their calm’. One such call came on May 13, 2012.

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That day, a BDS team was summoned at Srinagar’s Chanapora where 50kg IED was planted in a deserted Maruti 800 car. Cops were alerted by a cab driver. The initial visual checking revealed that there was a pressure cooker, canister and two cylinders full of explosives. The man whose ‘trembling’ hands cut the ‘high voltage’ wire was Shabir Wani, a ‘bomb hunter’ from Pulwama—the “nightmarish district” for the bomb squad.

It took bomb diffusers eight hours to diffuse the huge IED at Chanapora. Then at past midnight, the bomb was detonated, sending shockwaves around. Later police announced a cash reward of Rs 50,000 to be shared by the BDS and the cab driver. Then Kashmir police chief SM Sahai was quick to make comparisons, stating that the IED resembled one used for assassination of former Jamiat-e-Ahlihadees president Maulana Showkat Shah in Srinagar in 2011.

But while working in the line of fire, these men are aware that they aren’t targets. Yet they realise that they have been tasked to undo the target having perilous consequences. Like what happened in early 2000, when ex-PDP boss Mufti Sayeed turned up in Tral’s Panir Jageer to whip up his poll campaign.

No sooner he arrived, a bomb call was sounded. But it wasn’t taken seriously—until a new recruit was tasked to handle a ‘shrugged off’ operation. By the time he acted, the explosive ripped off. In an ensued chaos, the young bomb squad member was found split into two body parts.

But then, as any bomb diffuser will tell you: there are no dead heroes in BDS.

While being trained for the job—first in Udhampur, then in Haryana—one of the first lessons they learn: Don’t be a dead hero! They know it, yet they aren’t unaware of the fact that death is constantly stalking them in confrontation-ridden Kashmir.

“Death is definite,” says Javaid Khan, a BDS man from Budgam—a “safe haven” for bomb squad. “But then, one must know the basics to handle bombs. More than expertise and experience, it is about acting as per the book.” But then slips do occur, like recently in Baramulla where two BDS members were critically injured while trying to dispose explosive material planted in a dustbin.

“Most of these mishaps occur as BDS wears no bomb disposal suit,” says Suhail Mir, SSP PCR Srinagar and head of its BDS unit. “These men complain that the heat and weight make it impossible for them to wear it. This is where we deliberately leave room for hazards.” But wearing heavily armour-plated suit of 40kg weight is no kidding. These suits protect chest, neck and head, but they have their own failings, too.

Each suit can protect just from a certain amount of explosion. “If you wear a suit and stand within 10-15 feet of an IED,” says Mushtaq, a BDS member, “you can be blown to pieces.”

Mushtaq still remembers how his colleague fell to the same trap in mid-nineties, when he went to diffuse bomb in Srinagar. “He was wearing protective suit and went close to massive IED, which exploded and left him dead on spot.”

These suits are basically only shrapnel-proof, he says. “Just leave Kashmir aside, and see how bomb disposal experts despite wearing these suits were badly injured or killed just by shrapnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Kashmir might not be Iraq or Afghanistan, but the combat intensity often leaves these men ‘freaked out’—although they only seem to do their job. But once the brain behind the bomb outsmarts them and sent them packing to hospital, a new meaning of their profession enlightens them, like it did in March 2013.

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It happened days after two fidayeen stormed a CRPF camp in Bemina that left five paramilitary dead. As BDS squad from Srinagar’s PCR arrived to local police post, they were given two rucksacks loaded with explosives. But the team shortly realised that they were asked to untie the ‘gargantuan knot’.

“It was tricky ammunition,” says Manzoor, one of the team members. “The maker of that bomb was very sharp. When we finally managed to diffuse it and felt vindicated, a string-based trigger from bottom got activated and triggered an explosion.” While the explosion injured all BDS team, the worst hit was one SI Suhail, whose eye was hit by splinter, thus damaging his eyesight.

Amid this competing ‘war of wits’, nearly 50 ‘bomb hunters’ have made it to obituary list. Among the deadly tales is of the three BDS men from south Kashmir’s Awantipora who were blown to smithereens while overpowering an IED. Same was the fate of a head constable who while diffusing a bomb planted in a bottle lost his life somewhere in Tral. But physical injuries apart, mounting mental trauma is equally taking toll on these men. “One of my colleagues got injured while diffusing an IED in south Kashmir,” says a BDS man. “The poor man lost his mental balance due to the impact. He now wanders on streets.”

But despite being a fatal line of work, ‘bomb hunting’ is considered as an “adventure” service by many—apparently, in a bid to boost morale.

Grenade at Budshah Chowk being diffused.
Grenade at Budshah Chowk being diffused.

It was same sense of adventure, which motivated Budgam’s Maqbool Bhat to switchover from armed force to BDS in 2002. However, the moment he received his first ‘bomb call’, he realised: it was less of an adventure, more of a trembling task. He was summoned at encounter site in Sumbal and tasked to diffuse landmines kept in a hideout. He shortly realised it wasn’t a piece of cake as expected. “Every call simply throws you off the hook,” says Bhat, now senior BDS member. “But then, you have to stand poised and stick to basics.”

But in the profession where skills are pitted against science, these men often end up facing new challenges posed by science. This is happening despite IEDs having the similar pattern: a pressure-plate design with two strips of metal or carbon slightly spaced out.

So, as inability to crack devices with precision persists, many BDS members—who are “on call 24 hours, underpaid and unrecognised”—disgruntle over the dearth of ultra-modern tools, like wheelbarrow, a remote control robot that approaches a suspected bomb to evaluate its modules.

Presently, BDS mainly use devices akin to X-ray, helping them to infer sounds, odours and images within explosives. Besides there are sniffer dogs, mostly used to identify non-metallic devices. But both of these bomb tackling methods involve risks and limitations.

Perhaps the only respite in their ‘grim’ job comes when they set out to attend a ‘bomb call’, which infrequently turns out to be a hoax—thus sending them back to PCR after evoking laughter everywhere.

A view of grenade exploded at Budshah Chowk.
A view of grenade exploded at Budshah Chowk.

But the larger reality remains that today BDS is increasingly facing sophisticated IEDs and booby-trapped bombs.

Recently when 48-hr long EDI siege ended, the immediate operation that followed was sanitisation of building from explosives. The three-member BDS team from Srinagar—while combing premises to scout out any suspicious material—were literally sitting over explosive keg for 24 hours. Before walking out finally, they had diffused around 40 explosives scattering around the structure.

“This is an insane occupation,” says Nazir, one of the BDS members, “because only an insane man can make living by hunting bombs!”

His remarks unwittingly invoke another Hurt Locker moment:

“You know, these detonators misfire all the time!” exclaims a teammate while approaching an unexploded bomb. “…every time we go out, it’s life or death. You roll the dice. You recognize that, don’t you?”

Yes, Nazir recognizes that, and therefore asserts: I am stupid if I am not scared!

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